Thursday, September 2, 2010

Farewell: Deadly Dance

Farewell (2010) • View trailer for Farewell
Four stars (out of five). Unrated,with profanity, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.2.10

Truth really is stranger than fiction. 

French director Christian Carion, working from Serguei Kostine's novel, Bonjour Farewell, shines a well-deserved spotlight on a fascinating sequence of game-changing events that forever altered the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The resulting drama is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as The Lives of Others, which similarly dealt with the behavior of people forced to live under the extreme scrutiny of endemic government paranoia. 

Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, left), a mild-mannered French civil
servant living in Moscow, simply isn't cut out for espionage work; he
becomes increasingly nervous and unhappy while serving as a
clandestine courier for disaffected KGB official Sergei Gregoriev
(Emir Kusturica).
On an entirely different level, Carion's film is fascinating for its view of both world powers. The Soviet elite are depicted as corrupt hypocrites determined to enjoy the advantages of capitalism while keeping the working class under the yoke of "idealized" communism; the Americans - as typified by Fred Ward's mercilessly vindictive portrayal of President Ronald Reagan - are arrogant cowboys who believe they know what's best for the rest of the world ... despite having no clue how exposed their own 'national secrets' have become. 

The French, as typified by Philippe Magnan's wonderfully dry performance as Franois Mitterrand, obviously think both sides are crazy. No surprise there; this is a French film. But the opinion isn't necessarily unjust, given that the escalating rattle of nuclear sabers would have wiped most of Western Europe off the map, had war broken out. 
Carion's saga, although dramatized with some intimate personal elements that we couldn't possibly know about, nonetheless adheres mostly to established fact while depicting events that literally changed the world. 

In 1981, with Reagan and Brezhnev strutting about on the global stage, an upper-echelon KGB colonel  fictitiously named Sergei Gregoriev here, and played by Emir Kusturica  concludes that the madness had gotten out of hand. He decides to do something about it. 

Shrewd enough to avoid the conventional channels employed by disaffected spies, knowing full well that such departments are littered with informants, Gregoriev discreetly attaches himself to Pierre Froment  played by Guillaume Canet, better known as the director of the gripping thriller Tell No One  a French engineer on assignment in Moscow, where he lives with his wife and two young children. 

Froment, every inch a standard-issue civil servant, is the last person who'd ever be suspected as a spy: a bit of psychology that Gregoriev deliberately exploits. 

The KGB officer begins passing secrets to Froment: information that eventually routes through Mitterand and into U.S. intelligence hands, where everybody  notably Reagan, when he can tear himself away from repeated viewings of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence  is astonished by the degree to which the Soviets know everything about American military and scientific secrets. 

The revelation, when it comes, is jaw-dropping: Rather than invest in their own war-related research and development, the Soviets have been pouring all their financial resources into stealing American technology, and thus keeping up. In effect, then, the United States has been in an arms race with itself! 

Satisfied that this new source is sending along legit intel, the French Secret Service assigns Gregoriev the code name "Farewell." And, wholly against his will, Froment is asked to continue serving as the go-between ... not merely by his own government, but by Gregoriev himself, who trusts this nervous neophyte spy. 

As the days and weeks pass, we gradually learn more about these two men, and about their families. Some of this is played for gentle laughs, as when Gregoriev, wanting to please his teenage son, Igor (Evgenie Kharlanov), asks Froment for a cassette of music by 'Keen.' (He means Queen.) 

It's one of few material requests that Gregoriev makes, having ignored early attempts to pay him for his information. We see the affront in Kusturica's eyes, when the subject comes up; Gregoriev isn't doing this for money. He wants a better, safer world for his wife and son. 

Other relationship dynamics take on a more serious tone, as when Gregoriev  ignoring his own sage advice  takes up again with a former mistress (Dina Korzun, as Alina), or when Froment becomes increasingly unhappy, and even physically ill, over the secrets he's forced to keep from his wife, Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara). 

Gregoriev also has trouble getting along with Igor: nothing unusual, just the standard-issue generation gap. It's amusing to note that some family problems are so universal. 

Such familiar domestic issues are increasingly overshadowed, however, by our growing awareness of the chances being taken here: our knowledge that Gregoriev and Froment's luck cannot possibly hold. 

In a country where 'every streetcorner babushka' (elderly Russian woman) is cheerfully willing to become a watchful informer, the odds mount rapidly, and distressingly. 

Then, too, we cannot ignore the symbolic implications of Gregoriev's fondness for romantic poetry, most notably the work of French poet Leo Ferre. 

Not to mention the ominous tableau with which Carion opens his film. 

Kusturica, a big bear of a presence, is a multi-hyphenate: a Serbian filmmaker well regarded as director, producer, writer and actor. His skills at the latter suit him well here; much goes on behind his brooding eyes and shaggy frame. Gregoriev spends a lot of time in his apartment, watching old home movies on the ceiling; we sense the sadness of a man who, once upon a time, probably believed that being a loyal KGB agent was the right thing to do. 

And while clearly a methodical planner, Gregoriev has the usual problems with impulse control, whether with his smart-mouthed son or the alluring Alina. 

We like this man; we want to believe in the possibility of moral-thinking individuals willing to forsake party politics  particularly those with such potentially serious consequences  for the greater good. 

Canet doesn't have Kusturica's acting chops, and so we rarely understand much of what goes on in Froment's mind. We never get a sense that Froment accepts this dangerous relationship because he believes equally in the cause, or because he simply lacks the courage to refuse; the actor's default appearance is a nervous hunch (not that this seems unreasonable). 

Canet's quieter moments are better, as when Froment bonds with Gregoriev while discussing music, or the arguable merits of champagne over vodka. 

The overall casting adds to the film's sense of verisimilitude: Eastern bloc actors play the Russians, French actors play the French, American actors  Willem Dafoe turns up as a CIA black-ops type  play the Americans. All speak their native languages, except for reasons having to do with characterization; Gregoriev prefers French in Froment's company, as it hearkens back to this big man's fondness for French poetry. 

The film is a bit sloppy with some of the side details, starting with the nature of Froment's actual job; we never get a sense of what he's actually doing in Moscow. We're told he's an engineer, but what is he designing, or building? 

On a smaller scale, how does Jessica Froment spend her days? 

On the other hand, Kharlanov's Igor undergoes a wholly believable character arc, as the initially petulant teen goes from mild comic relief  hilariously playing "air microphone" while gyrating to Queen's "We Will Rock You" in a deserted glade  to savvy observer. Every son wants to idolize his father; Igor's path is rockier than some, but he gets there eventually. 

As was the case with The Lives of Others, one walks away from this film wanting to know much, much more about the actual events behind this drama. By the same token, we're granted yet another glimpse of how horrific life would be, under the level of intense scrutiny to which Russian citizens were subjected at all times. 

And, yes, it's nice to think that a couple of little-known individuals helped bring about perestroika; it reaffirms my faith in the notion that one person genuinely can make a difference. 

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