Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Kompromat: How the FSB Operates

Westerners working in Russia (and also China) take note. If a French diplomat running the Siberian Alliance Française is not safe from the FSB’s so-called “Kompromat” frame-ups, you aren’t either. Leave while you can. Transparently inspired by the real-life Yoann Barbereau, the thinly fictionalized Mathieu Roussel finds himself the subject of a coordinated campaign to ruin his reputation and falsely imprison him. However, the soft, decadent Westerner turns out to be a surprisingly resourceful fugitive in Jerome Salle’s Kompromat, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Admittedly, Roussel makes some highly questionable decisions early on. First he moves his wife and young daughter to Irkutsk, because he believes spending time together in Siberia will heal his ailing marriage. Then, he stages an explicitly LGBTQ-themed dance performance for a gala attended by his local oligarch sponsors and government contacts. It does not go over well. To cap things off, during the reception afterwards, Roussel openly flirts with Svetlana Rostova, who is married to Sacha, a disabled Chechnya veteran, who also happens to be the son of the local FSB commander.

Shortly thereafter, Roussel is arrested on dubious molestation charges and held virtually incommunicado. After several harrowing weeks in prison (first getting beaten to a pulp in general population and then moved to solitary, for his own “protection”), he is finally granted house arrest, but this is obviously just another stage of the ongoing Kompromat (that is the FSB's official term for such operations).

Even the attorney hired by the consulate (one of the few honest criminal advocates still practicing) indirectly suggests Roussel should make a run for it, but he can only trust Svetlana (whom co-screenwriter Caryl Ferey named in honor of exiled Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich) will dare to help him. In fact, she already saved his life by delivering food for Roussel, while he was held in solitary.

Salle’s depiction of Russian prisons is maybe just slightly more horrific than you already assumed.
 However, the film soon settles into a ripping good chase thriller that also opens a revealing window into the state of today’s Russia. It is a land where half the population uncritically believes whatever the state media tells them, while the other half only communicates through encrypted apps like Telegram, due to fear of the pervasive state surveillance.

So, if you are an American still working in China, take note of the clever ways Roussel uses burner phones and carpooling/ride-share apps to evade the FSB dragnet. (Again, if you think this couldn’t happen to you, ask Mark Swidan about his recent experiences.) This is smart stuff, clearly based on reality.

It is also remarkable how completely the well-known European and brave Russian cast disappears into their characters. Gilles Lellouche is a totally convincing Job-like everyman fugitive, in the Henry Fonda-
Wrong Man tradition. Polish Joanna Kulig (from Cold War and Ida) is exquisitely sad as Rostova. Yet, perhaps the richest, most complex performance is that of Michael Gor, as the senior Rostov, who ultimately is not the film’s worst villain. That would be Sagarine, the sinister Spetsnaz officer who assumes command of the man-hunt, played with piercing eyes and hard-charging intensity by Igor Jijikine.

Even though it slightly exceeds two hours,
Kompromat is a tightly crafted thriller. It is also an urgently timely warning: if you are still working in a hostile regime (like Russia, China, or Belarus) get out now. Honestly, Kompromat is so ruthlessly realistic, it even depicts the French ambassador adopting an appeasement strategy. You would hope the Yoann Barbereau would have made Macron somewhat more hawkish towards Putin, but apparently not. On the other hand, the film quickly grabs viewers, producing generous helpings of paranoia, adrenaline, and brutal geopolitical realism. Very highly recommended, Kompromat releases this Friday (1/27).