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Farewell

A smart spy drama relives a corner of the Cold War.

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A man with secrets: Guillaume Canet portrays a French spy.
  • A man with secrets: Guillaume Canet portrays a French spy.

In any other time and place, Sergei and Pierre would be convivial drinking buddies, two bureaucrats who love their jobs and their countries almost as much as they love the privilege that goes with their work. But when they do meet, in Leonid Brezhnev's Moscow, there's espionage to be done, and they've been chosen (one way or another) to do it.

Sergei (Emir Kusturica, the Serbian actor/director), late-middle-aged and turning craggy, joined the KGB right after university, and now he's Level 1. Pierre (Guillaume Canet, also an actor/director) is a young French engineer working in Russia, married to an East German woman who defected long ago, and raising two children in their provisional homeland.

So who better than Pierre -- someone way off the radar of the Russians, who consider French spies to be about as potent as French vodka -- to become Sergei's contact when he decides to pass along secret documents, hoping to end the oppression of his country's regime.

They don't quite make them like Farewell any more, and it's a shame: Set in Moscow, Paris and Washington (with Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan!), it's entertaining and smartly done, a drama on the fringes of history, if not quite a historical drama. The dialogue is sharp, the actors polished, and the suspense gently palpable, even though we know who wins (as least in the grand scheme of things).

Like TV's affable Burn Notice, Farewell offers copious tidbits about the spy game. For example: The bedrooms at the French embassy are bugged, and if a guy isn't getting it from his wife, they send in a prostitute to seduce him. "So if you want peace," Sergei tells Pierre, "screw your wife. Funny, huh?" Surprisingly, the Frenchman doesn't think it's funny at all. Another stereotype shattered (and another reason why nobody would suspect Pierre is involved in espionage).

These conversations make Farewell a quiet character study as well as a procedural, and director Christian Carion, who co-wrote the screenplay, makes them feel as significant as he does the film's suspense. There's a metaphor here and there (a soaring kite, a lone wolf in the snow), even a playful nod to classic montage, a la Eisenstein, involving stone sculptures of iconic Soviet soldiers, with children climbing innocently on the barrel of a cannon. This is a low-keyed thriller, relatively unconcerned with ideology, although clearly, freedom comes off better than the lack of it (if, that is, you consider Freddie Mercury, prancing around in his short shorts, to be the pinnacle of freedom).

Carion even lets Reagan be Reagan. Our dotty decider rules with instinct and aphorisms, like when he chooses to keep the CIA director out of the loop: "He's the boss of the CIA, but I'm the boss of the United States." If Reagan never actually said that, then he probably should have, and his scenes with François Mitterrand are at once quietly thrilling and just slightly you-are-there hokey. (The ever-monotonous Ward is possibly the perfect actor to play Reagan.)

As the drama's covert affairs grow more tense, so do the family lives of the players, and not in a perfunctory way. Carion clearly cares about husbands and wives, fathers and sons, and the sacrifices people make for history and each other -- especially Sergei, who doesn't believe he'll live to see a free Russia, and who's doing it all for his combative teen-age son, who aches for freedom.

Early in Farewell, as the two men get to know each other, Pierre plans a trip to Paris, where Sergei had lived and worked for five years. So Sergei prepares a shopping list: For his son he wants a Johnny Walkman and some music by Keen -- he means a Sony Walkman and Queen -- and for himself, he wants French poetry. His malaprops are charming, but the longing behind them speaks to a rigid culture that we conspicuous consumers in the West can't imagine. Whether that makes ours better than theirs is a war still being waged. In English, and French and Russian, with subtitles.

 

Starts Fri., Sept. 24. Harris

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