★★ / ★★★★
Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a member of the KGB who hopes to induce drastic changes in the U.S.S.R, is sent to meet with Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a Frenchman living in Moscow with his family during the Cold War. Sergei has important information that he wishes to relay to the French government, but when he discovers that Pierre is just an engineer with no prior experience in espionage, he insists that further partnership is not a possibility. However, he realizes later that the engineer is the perfect liaison: no one will suspect him of being a spy.
Adapted from Sergei Kostine’s book, “L’affaire Farewell,” directed by Christian Carion, is a thriller that is downplayed for the most the part, turning part of its attention on the mechanics of passing on information: from an unofficial Russian spy who hopes that his action will make a better tomorrow for his son, French officials so willing to earn approval from higher-ups, to the Americans who wish acquire advantage over their rivals. What does not work is when the material focuses on Sergei and Pierre’s problems at home. The suspense is impeded by melodrama.
The picture surprised and tickled me in that information being transferred from one group to another does not involve plans of political assassination, which areas will be bombed and when, or who is hiding where. Instead, considered highly valuable are things like notes on space shuttles, blueprints of a plane, scientific research, and the like—intellectual pursuits, a competition of knowledge, rather than of killing.
Though the Cold War is now the past, it remains fascinating. If anything, the film reminded me why I was fascinated with this specific time in history when I learned about it in high school. Also, though it is very relevant today, it made me consider that maybe I am getting a little bit tired of watching movies about the war in the Middle East. About eight times out of ten, they are indiscernible: played for entertainment rather than attempting to make a genuine presentation of the elusive truth and the horrors of war.
Suspense is embedded in the small moments: being followed by members of the Soviet party in the subway, being stopped and asked for papers, and sneaking into an office to acquire crucial files. It is likely that many of us are unfamiliar with Sergei and Pierre’s real-life counterparts, their stories, so it is unpredictable. In addition, the picture establishes an atmosphere of paranoia that it feels like that the duo can be caught at any time. Maybe there is a reason why their accomplishments are not known universally.
I just did not care for Pierre and Sergei’s personal lives. Scenes involving who is cheating, which father feels like his son is drifting away, whose wife is upset when she discovers her husband’s extracurricular activities—these are executed with not enough urgency. As a result, shots that might work—a close up, for example, designed to highlight the fears and desperation of the men and as well as their wives—feel like they are ripped right out of daytime soaps. If the professional and the personal spheres had been given opposite tones, exploring them might have felt more natural. Instead, what we have is a picture that is an effective thriller but an ineffective drama.