Thursday, September 23, 2010


Cast: Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Evgeniy Kharlanov
Director: Christian Carion
Runtime: 149 min.
Country: France
Language: French
Verdict: This is your standard issue Spy film of the dramatic kind.
Genre: Thriller, Drama

        L’Affaire Farewell offers a singularly curious final shot that singlehandedly calls to attention, and almost questions everything that has transpired before, working like a twist in the narration much like a plot twist would in the narrative. It, quite smoothly brings a psychological relevance to the otherwise pedestrian opening shots, and threads it all together in a fascinating arc of politics that goes beyond the mere rhetoric of the victory of democracy and the fall of communism, and into those territories where patriotism works as a route for the fulfillment of one’s desire to be glorified and ultimately approved as a hero. A man of class so to speak, a man of authority, a superhero, who stood against all odds, against whom every force in the world combined, and one who changed the tide of world events. My doubt remains if the film acknowledges and empathizes with this trait, or it merely is a tool for this glorification. If it is the former, I think this is a smart film. If it is the latter, which I’m beginning to believe more and more, I think it is no better than flamboyantly made mediocrity.
        Colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Mr. Kusturica) stands alone looking at us, his face a picture if despair. I assume you do not know the story of the Cold war spy codenamed Farewell, and I wouldn’t spoil it for you either. But Gregoriev stands in the snow, his figure towering over the screen, and he looks at us. His sad face betrays a level of smugness, self-righteous pride, and you can almost hear that song from Jagriti (1954) where the unorthodox and idealist Professor Shekhar praises his kind under the disguise of bidding an adieu. Some do earn that pride, and there’s no two ways about that. Problem is when someone starts assuming he has earned it. Gregoriev stares at us for a moment or two, and then half-swings his arm asking us to proceed, his action suggesting in verbal terms – Go on, you nincompoops. Or poops. I don’t know, you tell me.
        Sergei is KGB colonel, and an informer to the French domestic intelligence agency DST. Disillusioned by the communist he is. Doesn’t want Swiss bank balance. Doesn’t need asylum. Only needs change. Only needs another Russian revolution while old Brezhnev is wearing the country thin. He sits in such a strategically important seat at the KGB that he admittedly has all the requisite buttons at his disposal to bring the country down. His intelligence causes everybody, from then French Premier Mitterrand to then US President Reagan, to sit up and act swiftly, and when poor Gorbachev walks in, the fatal blow is dealt. In crime investigations, as in literature, as in movies, it is always considered safe if the man in question has simple practical demands. When the needs start becoming intangible, we are slowly entering unsafe territory. Curveball just needed a green card, and yet we all know courtesy him how a single source of intelligence could be a colossal disaster. L’Affaire Farewell, through its framing of Sergei, and its editing juxtaposing the poor economical state and the iron hand that is to be blamed with shots of Sergei, claims that he was that kind of an informant. Maybe he was, and there is a lot of movies and lot of novels to read and grow tired of that kind of espionage activity. What would rather interest me, especially from a film that is dealing with intelligence as caused by people and not just relay transmitters, is the level of doubt that always exists considering it is people who are part of the transaction. Reliability is not even a question. L’Affaire Farewell asks us to assume without questioning about the nature of the information being provided by Sergei, or the authenticity, except that we know he provides and the west acts and the communists fall. Oh yeah, and all that deal with family being put to the grinder and stuff. I think the family angle is just as much of a cliché, and is a more annoying one considering it has the middlebrow seriousness attached to it, and doesn’t have any of the fun we have with stuff like The Bourne films.
        One might say L’Affaire Farewell is fairly simplistic. The world leaders are little more than their popular images. It reduces Ronald Reagan to a man who talks like a B-western hero and watches and re-watches The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and essentially reduces that film to a question of perspective. Reader, I ask, what do you think of Tom Doniphon? I ask, if he were anymore than a literary (in this cinematic) character why would he let himself die all lonely, other than to drown himself in the glory of his sacrifice and self-pity, and Hallie’s knowledge of it. Mr. Kusturica plays Sergei as a smug self righteous man. L’Affaire Farewell suggests, as Mr. David Denby observes here, that men like Sergei, and his contact, a one engineer Pierre (Mr. Canet) were the real guys who shot Liberty Valance, while the governments of NATO led by Regan and co., much like Stoddard, took the credit. I wouldn’t want to talk about Valance vis-à-vis communism because behind that feeble allusion L’Affaire Farewell draws no analogy of any muscle. What I rather find interesting is how the machinery of the system comes across, as against how Mr. Denby recognizes it. While Mr. Denby’s morals are drawn from reality juxtaposed with the cinematic events, the naïve viewer who would be completely unaware of Agent Farewell, would find that L’Affaire Farewell has a most stunningly convincing monologue from CIA director Feeney (Mr. Willem Dafoe) about the pragmatics of the intelligence world, as against the ideals, and we see how it is the swift actions of the government that saves the lives of some of these people. If L’Affaire Farewell considers itself as a chronicler of history, then by definition it is a historical document, and that puts it squarely as a document that provides a completely alternate perspective of events. One in which the central protagonist becomes Sergei, and who commits audacious acts of espionage to exhibit his patriotism and his power to change the course of world events, and where the arms of the governments act pragmatically yet effectively to save not only identities but lives. They are anything but nincompoops. Oscar Wilde said a thing about patriotism. I guess Feeney and co. here knew a great deal about it and how it worked.

Note: Here's the poem the film recites. L’Affaire Farewell most surely is the narrator here.

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