DVD of the Week – Review of Farewell (2009)

by HELEN GEIB

Farewell is a French espionage thriller set in Moscow in the early 1980s. The story is a dramatization of a consequential case of secrets-passing by a disaffected, high-ranking KGB officer. “Farewell” (the English word) was the code-name used by his French intelligence agency handlers. The film was directed by Christian Carion (Joyeux Noel) and based on a non-fiction book by Serguei Kostine.

Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) is a career KGB analyst with a wife and teenage son. He had been stationed with his family in Paris 15-odd years before, and when he decides to start passing secrets to the Western allies he contacts a Frenchman working in Moscow who he knows from that time- and likewise knows to have covert connections to the French FBI.

The French contact sends a subordinate named Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) to meet with Grigoriev in his place. Froment is an engineer who has no security connections and thus is subject to only the usual, relatively low level of surveillance accorded to all foreigners. Initially contemptuous of the French for staging amateur night, Grigoriev soon decides that dealing with a non-professional spy is the perfect strategy to forestall KGB suspicion.

The film deftly balances suspense and character development. Given that the story is grounded in true events rather than spy fiction, it is a foregone conclusion that Grigoriev will eventually be found out and apprehended. Instead of trying to obscure the inevitable conclusion, the filmmakers concentrate on wringing the maximum possible tension from the how and the why.

The even more significant “why” is the one in “why did he do it?” Grigoriev is not a closet political activist, a double agent, or in it for the money. He does not want to defect. He is a true believer who sees what he’s doing as a way to force essential change and renewal within the apparatus of the socialist state. (A film analogy that comes to mind is the German high officers depicted in Valkyrie, who decided to assassinate Hitler not because he was waging war but because he was losing.) His longing is focused on his son, for whom he wants greater opportunities in life.

The son’s longings are more narrowly focused on “decadent Western music,” as he describes it to his father with conscious irony. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. Grigoriev refuses payment from the French, but he does provide a list of contraband: a Walkman and Queen tapes for his son; French champagne, poetry, and vintage pop music for himself. His nostalgia for his time in France even extends to insisting that Froment converse with him in French.

Froment’s motivation is realistically not clear-cut. There is an element of feeling like he can’t say no to his boss, plus a feeling that he may be able to leverage his service to the state to get a better posting in a country where the maid doesn’t look through the drawers every time she’s in the house alone. On the other hand, his wife doesn’t want him to do it because she’s afraid of what will happen to them if he’s found out, and he knows she’s only being realistic. Yet, it’s also big, it’s thrilling, and Grigoriev could be right; this could truly bring real change to the world.

And although neither man puts the name to it, as they continue to meet and the information hand-offs morph into hours of just talking, an odd friendship develops.

It’s refreshing to watch a movie that assumes an informed and attentive audience. A good amount of time passes, but there are no “ten days later”-type superimposed titles. The filmmakers trust the viewer to follow the visual cues and to mark the differences in the way the characters interact. The film also assumes basic historical literacy. Reagan, Mitterand, and Gorbachev take the stage without biographical introduction, and the audience is presumed to understand that the maid is not rifling their drawers because she’s a petty thief. Farewell is not a primer on the Cold War. The story leaves the principals only long enough as is necessary to show that Farewell did make a difference.

Other new releases this week: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Country Strong, White Material

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