Thursday, March 28, 2024

Fred Cavaye’s Farewell, Mr. Haffmann

A crisis can bring out either the best or worst in people. Joseph Haffmann sees both from his employee Francois Mercier and Mercier’s wife, Blanche. As a Jewish French citizen born in Poland, Haffmann witnessed violent Jew-hatred before, so insists on sending his wife and children to safer territory before it is too late. Unfortunately, he stays behind just a little too long, leaving himself at the mercy of the Merciers in Fred Cavaye’s Farewell, Mr. Haffmann, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Haffmann was not Coco Chanel, but he developed a loyal and discerning clientele for his elegant jewelry designs. His longtime shop assistant Francois Mercier has a solid grasp of business side of things, but he lacks Haffmann’s talent. Nevertheless, Haffmann trusts Mercier to legally assume ownership while he and his family are exile. Unfortunately, the Germans choke off all transit out of Paris before Haffmann can depart.

Despite their understandable fears, the Merciers agree to shelter Haffmann in the basement, but they are skittish about sending letters to the former boss’s family. Nevertheless, Blanche warms to Haffmann as they all settle into the new reality, at least until Francois decides to make it weird. For years, the Merciers have struggled to conceive, but to no avail. Blanche has been certified fertile. Presumably, Francois is shooting blanks, but Haffmann has three children.

Obviously, the bargain Mercier proposes is an extraordinarily bad idea. It freaks out his wife and leads to long-term angst and misunderstandings. Ironically, Haffmann and Blanche will fake it rather than make it, but it still jeopardizes his position over the long-term.

Farewell is sort of like a cross-between the Czech Holocaust-era drama The Protektor and the Steinbeck novel Burning Bright (admittedly not a major work). Given the confined setting, it is easy to see the film’s stage roots. It is indeed based on Jean-Philippe Daguerre’s play, but Cavaye’s direction helps open it up a little, so it never feels conspicuously stagey. In fact, his experience helming thrillers like Point Blank paid dividends for Farewell, during the near misses and narrow escapes.

Cavaye also has a terrific cast, starting with the great Daniel Auteuil, as Haffmann, who is neither a passive victim or a caricature of neediness. He is a family man, who does what he must, which makes him so easy to identify with. Sara Giraudeau is quite extraordinary portraying Blanche as she processes her moral/ethical confusion and disappointment in her increasingly opportunistic husband.

Gilles Lellouche (one of Cavaye’s regular collaborators) somewhat humanizes the flawed Mercier, who self-servingly self-justifies each successive compromise and betrayal, but Cavaye and co-screenwriter Sarah Kaminsky totally stack the deck against him. Of course, Mercier’s sinister new customer, Commandant Junger, is supposed to be unalloyed evil monster, which, to his credit, Nikolai Kinski (half-brother of Nastassja) totally embrace.

Despite the tragic subject matter,
Farewell has a few surprises in store for viewers. There is a lot of smart, brutally honest drama, but it builds to a haunting finish. Highly recommended for sophisticated audiences, Farewell, Mr.Haffmann opens tomorrow (3/29) in New York, at the Quad and the New Plaza Cinema.