So Long and Adieu – ‘Farewell’ uncovers a true spy tale of the 1980s

“Farewell” features strong lead performances from two directors-turned-actors in a story of Russian espionage. One is Emir Kusturica, in whose films “Black Cat, White Cat” and “Underground” we got some of the best Eastern European films of the late ’90s. The other is Guillaume Canet, the French director of the very exciting 2006 thriller “Tell No One,” who has a long acting résumé.

In “Farewell” they make an interesting pair, as Kusturica plays Sergei Gregoriev, a Soviet colonel who has grown disillusioned with life under communism. He is looking to leak state secrets in order to have a better life for his son, whom he rarely talks to, and his wife, whom he is cheating on with his secretary.

Sergei finds a helpful amateur spy in Pierre Froment (Canet), a Frenchman working as an engineer in Moscow. Sergei enlists Pierre for the cause, seemingly out of pure force and character. In return, he doesn’t want money, just some French brandy, a book of poems and a “Johnny Walkman” that his son can play his bootleg Queen tapes on. It reminds Sergei of the brief time he spent in Paris with his family.

Pierre is younger, with an attractive wife and young children, and he soon finds himself lying to his wife, feeling more and more nervous and getting in way too deep. He hasn’t grown up under communism and would very much like to get back to Paris. Or maybe New York.

Christian Carion’s film is based on a true story that remained top secret until Serguei Kostine’s 1997 book “Bonjour Farewell,” which has not been translated into English. As the film lays out, the proof that the CIA, the White House and other federal agencies were infiltrated by spies led to several arrests and shut down the flow of information. This, in turn, led the Soviets to choose between ramping up funding for more spying or dumping money into weapons programs to compete with America. Or, the third option, allowing a little bit of Perestroika. We all know what happened next.

While much of “Farewell” focuses on the intrigue between Pierre and Sergei and includes shabbier, domestic versions of John Le Carre set pieces, the film also takes us into the Oval Office, where Fred Ward does an amiable job as Ronald Reagan, and David Soul — looking a bit like Louis Black these days — plays his adviser Hutton.

Willem Dafoe pops in occasionally as a CIA man, and Philippe Magnan plays Francois Mitterrand, whom Reagan tries to strong-arm into dropping communists from his cabinet. Reagan, we see, likes to watch “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and one could go so far as to compare that film to “Farewell.”

The film lumbers along, sometimes gripping — a scene at the border is shot and edited very well — and sometimes lyrical. Carion allows breathing space in his film for private moments with his major and minor characters, including Sergei’s son, who gets a chance to do his best air guitar to “We Will Rock You.”

Only near the end, with a scene between Pierre and Dafoe’s CIA man, does the film feel like spy genre and not realistic drama, but the scene is also necessary to clean up what is sometimes a confusing film.

‘FAREWELL’
***
Starring: Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet and Fred Ward
Length: 113 minutes
No rating
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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