‘True stories” are the highest form of fiction, and so it is with Farewell, a Cold War spy film that, for all its charms and graces, changes too much history in order to fit its story. French filmmaker Christian Carion may be forgiven much, however, because he has crafted a film that despite its historical infidelities gets the feel of the early-Eighties Cold War just right.
Carion, director of the Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noël, does it by depicting the Soviet Union not as some dreary, drab dungeon, but as a place full of color, with everyday Russians living, if not the good life, then at least a European one — replete with holidays, workplace gossip, swigs of cognac, ungrateful children, and a mistress’s furtive glances. The system is hellish, but, unlike Sartre, these people find heaven in others.
In one memorable scene, Sergei Gregoriev, the KGB colonel–turned–defector, and Pierre Froment, a French civil engineer–turned–reluctant spy, stroll through Moscow parks talking family, poetry, and Communism when, approached by a smiling wedding party, Gregoriev takes a photograph of them, and then, at their invitation, joins them for another photograph. In the shadow of one of the park’s innumerable statues of dour Communist patriarchs, the family remains unaware of how precarious their lot is, but Gregoriev, who betrays his Communist masters, knows his greater danger all too well — and yet he smiles.
Gregoriev knows that his is the Russia of Lefortovo prison, where the real-life model for Gregoriev, the highly unstable Vladimir Vetrov, penned his Confessions of a Traitor after stupidly revealing that he was involved in “something big.” Jailed for stabbing his own girlfriend and then killing a KGB agent who came over to investigate, Vetrov regretted only that he had failed to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to his beloved France. Codenamed “Farewell,” Vetrov helped push the Soviet Union — which had long been stealing the West’s technological secrets — toward its own farewell. In the film, Gregoriev does it all for his son. In real life, Vetrov probably did it for his ego. The Francophile agent, who had lived the good life in Paris and Canada, wound up confined to a desk in Moscow, archiving the exploits of lesser agents. He wanted to show just how his talents had been underestimated.
“Farewell” gave French intelligence the complete list of all 250 KGB-affiliated industrial spies — “the X Line” — along with the locations of American nuclear submarines, communication codes, radar positions, and even space-shuttle plans. President Mitterrand, played by Philippe Magnan, passes all this information along to President Reagan in a gesture of good will. Mitterrand is the picture of the French statesman effortlessly rebuking Americans who, too conniving for their own good, don’t seem to have the requisite heightened moral sentiments. Seemingly every French movie that deals with international affairs has to have a naïve Frenchman come face to face with an American Machiavelli, and Farewell is no exception: In the final scene, Froment demands that a CIA official (Willem Dafoe) explain why “Farewell” can’t be rescued — only to hear that sometimes sacrifices must be made for the good of all.
Blindness to the rightness and necessity of realpolitik is the film’s greatest failing: the Gallic oh-so-chic attitude that nothing is worth fighting or dying for. If so, then nothing is worth living for either — certainly not Alfred de Vigny’s poetry, chocolate, or French high culture, the trappings that Gregoriev asks as his only reward. Gregoriev says he’s not afraid to die, but Pierre Froment is. Froment’s East German wife reminds him that she married an engineer, not James Bond. In fact, his reasons for becoming a spy are never fully explained. His mission isn’t impossible, but it does bring inquietude. Why risk it? It has to be more than his professed solidarity with Gregoriev.
To burnish his one-worldish bona fides, director Carion plays with perspective and language, bouncing from Moscow to Paris to Washington, from Russian to French to English, yet the film remains indelibly French. Carion actually spent three days trying to persuade Fred Ward to play an unconvincing Reagan who obsesses over The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (a not-too-subtle homage to playing with perspective). Reagan was a bad actor, so maybe bad acting is in order, but he was a great statesman, and Carion does not do him justice. Ward reportedly told Carion he must really be French to cast him as Reagan.
Carion chose better for his two main characters, casting two European fellow directors in these roles, Emir Kusturica as Gregoriev and Guillaume Canet as Froment. Canet is forgettable, but Kusturica is an actor par excellence, whose presence commands the film. Kusturica does this despite having had to learn Russian for the role after the Russian minister of culture strongly advised Russian actors not to make a film about Russia’s greatest traitor. (The scenes that feature Moscow were shot through subterfuge: Carion pretended he was filming a Coca-Cola commercial.)
Kusturica, who is Serbian, has had his own brushes with evil — and come up lacking. When asked why he did so little against the dictator Milosevic, he replied timidly, “Nobody’s perfect.” But he perfectly captures Gregoriev’s motivations. At one point, Gregoriev says not a word, lying on his back, looking longingly at 8mm sepia films of his son, breathing the carefree air of Paris. The smoke from his cigarette clouds the room and the son ages, but the memory remains. Later, reeling from torture, he quotes Alfred de Vigny’s “Le Mort du Loup,” a poem about a wolf who dies in silence so that his pups might live.
That scene is fictitious, but Farewell is not meant to be cinéma vérité. Still, Carion would do well to read more Vigny, who once wrote: “Actors are lucky, they have glory without responsibility.” Directors, alas, have no such luck when they tell a “true story” that isn’t.
– Charles C. Johnson is a Claremont Review of Books fellow at The Claremont Review of Books. He can be reached at CJohnson@claremont.org.