Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Rendezvous ’10: Farewell

He was called “Farewell” and he knew everything top secret there was to know. He was a Colonel in the KGB charged with reviewing the intelligence they gathered on the west—all of it, including the extent to which each western intelligence agency had been compromised. He also knew the Soviet government had failed to live up to its promises. President Ronald Reagan called the resulting L’Affaire Farewell: “one of the most important espionage cases of the 20th century.” It also inspired Christian Carion’s Farewell (trailer here), which opens this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema on Thursday night.

Like the real-life Vladimir Vetrov on whom he is based, Colonel Grigoriev was once stationed in Paris, where he rebuffed the advances of the French and American intelligence services. However, by 1981, the Colonel had come to the conclusion the Soviet Union needed drastic changes, so he approached the DST, the French equivalent of the FBI (and the only western intelligence agency the KGB had not bothered to infiltrate), through Pierre, a French businessman with no formal involvement in the world of espionage.

Out of his element, Pierre wants to extricate himself from the affair as soon as possible, but Grigoriev insists on dealing only with him, knowing he cannot trust a professional spy. Partly in recognition of the value of Grigoriev’s intel and partly out of a sense of budding friendship, Pierre becomes the Colonel’s amateur handler, passing a wealth of information to the DST.

While Pierre and Grigoriev meet in parks and train stations, another alliance in being forged between President Reagan and Mitterrand, France’s newly elected socialist prime minister. The President is less than thrilled at the prospect of Communist ministers in the new French cabinet, but Mitterrand has an olive branch to offer: a high placed Soviet source the DST has codenamed “Farewell.”

One of the fascinating aspects of Farewell is watching how it portrays these influential world leaders. Philippe Magnan’s Mitterrand is aloof and dispassionate, coming across more than a bit like a cold fish. Refreshingly, Pres. Reagan is not portrayed as a doddering bumbler, but as an engaged and commanding leader. Yes, there are scenes of Reagan using classic film as a metaphor with his National Security Advisor (played by an almost unrecognizable David Soul), but never in way that calls his judgment into question. Still, there is something about Reagan’s mannerisms that are hard to emulate without lapsing into caricature. American actor Fred Ward gives it a good shot, but he still sounds more like a Saturday Night Live impersonation than a real flesh and blood individual.

Fortunately, Farewell’s primary leads are uniformly excellent. Though he looks appropriately rumpled, Emir Kusturica plays Grigoriev sharp as a tack, keenly aware of his own personal contradictions. As Pierre, Guillaume Canet also plays it smart and understated, avoiding the headshaking “what-did-I-get-myself-into” histrionics. As a result, viewers can believe the unqualified trust Grigoriev places in him.

Technically well produced, cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende and set designer Jean-Michel Simonet effectively capture the oppressive drabness of the Brezhnev era. Yet ideologically, Farewell resists easy classification. While it certainly depicts some terrible acts committed at the behest of the Communist government, the film often suggests a John Le Carre-like equivalency, at least between their respective governments and spy masters. However, the ultimate conclusion again challenges the audience’s conceptions of faith and loyalty, in the context of the preceding “L’Affaire Farewell.”

Considering how long it has been since a brainy spy film sneaked into theaters, Farewell is quite welcome indeed. Featuring two compelling lead performances and a meaty story that intrigues on several levels, Farewell is a great selection to launch French Rendezvous. It screens this Thursday (3/11) at Alice Tully Hall and Friday (3/12) at the IFC Center.