Farewell, a French film directed by Christian Carion, delves into the true story of Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a KGB officer who dramatically alters the espionage landscape of the Cold War by betraying the Kremlin’s greatest intelligence secrets to NATO. In order to give Soviet counterintelligence the slip, Gregoriev – given the codename ‘Farewell’ by French intelligence – uses ‘everyman’ French engineer, Pierre Froment (Guilluame Canet), as his agent and go-between with Western Intelligence. The information he supplies is of such great value that it quickly lands in the laps of France’s President Mitterand (Philippe Magnan) and the United States’ President Reagan (Fred Ward), both of whom take a personal interest in the operation. This sets the stage for a long, drawn out story of the nature and trials of espionage as Gregoriev and Froment find their personal lives drawn into their ongoing spy game.
In terms of accuracy and realism, the film to its credit is one of those rare movies dealing with spies and espionage that actually portrays the shadowy business as it really is. Unfortunately, the problem is that this makes for a terribly dull movie experience– because espionage in reality is a tedious, mundane and largely boring exercise, only punctuated by sudden and brief suspense if an operative happens to mess up or be caught out. There is a reason why most spy films – even the more ‘realistic’ ones – have little resemblance to how espionage really functions. It’s just not very exciting material.
In the case of Farewell, the situation is not helped by a leisurely and all too pleasant first half of the film, where 1980s Moscow is depicted with all the stunning dramatic flair of a laid back, sun-drenched suburbia. The movie attempts to concentrate the film on the characters and their personal lives, yet this is bogged down in unnecessary and uninteresting side-stories. Gregoriev has nostalgic childhood memories of France. He has an affair with a woman at work. His son is brooding and listens to ‘decadent Western music’. Froment struggles with lying to his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) about his ongoing spy work.
Amidst all this are sudden jarring breaks where a poorly stereotyped President Reagan and his staff are trying to deal with the intelligence revelations Gregoriev is supplying them with. This was a rich and tumultuous moment historically, yet the film too often works in clichés and fails to get across the momentous consequences of Gregoriev’s story. Director Carion can’t seem to decide if Farewell is an intimate character portrayal, or a grand historical espionage story, and ends up failing at both.
When in the second half of the film, the danger and suspense finally begin to rise, the characters have not been developed enough to be cared about, and the stakes are too abstract to seem to matter unless one already has a good grounding in Cold War history. A gimmick appearance by Willem Dafoe for an unnecessary and crude epilogue only heightens this feeling.
Despite this, there are a couple of scenes in the climax which are powerfully done – a tense getaway attempt at the Finnish border, and a scene in which agents for Russian intelligence throughout the West are finally rounded up as a result of Gregoriev’s betrayal. The latter is especially compelling and beautifully acted, as you watch the horror and despair of the spies at the very moment they realise they’ve been found out. It is ironic that the best and most genuinely human moment of the film comes with nameless characters that appear for barely a few minutes, while the film’s stars struggle to connect and remain engaging. The other highlight of the film is undoubtedly its music, composed by Clint Mansell, which was haunting, tense and beautiful – almost embodying everything the film should have evoked.
Ultimately, Farewell isn’t a particularly engaging film, nor is it overtly bad. Instead, it loiters somewhere within the void of movie limbo, destined to be lost amongst all the other films where an interesting idea failed in its translation onto the big screen.