Monday, 2 May 2011

'L'affaire Farewell' review:

'L'affaire Farewell', just released in the UK and directed by Christian Carion, is an unspectacular 2009 French spy thriller based on a "true story". Set in Moscow in 1981, the focus is on an ordinary French man living in Moscow, Pierre (Guillaume Canet), who reluctantly falls into spying for his government after striking up a relationship with a Soviet informer, Sergei (Emir Kusturica). Sergei is disillusioned with the state of his country and is willing to part with the names of most of the Soviet spy network in Europe and North America, crippling the USSR's ability to effectively participate in the cold war. The importance of this information means that suddenly Pierre is on a mission that goes right the way to the White House and is credited (by the film) with bringing down the "Iron Curtain" a decade later.

Yet anybody expecting a taut and gripping espionage thriller will leave the theatre disappointed. 'Farewell' is mostly concerned with the (I imagine speculated) family strife between the spies and their respective wives. Sergei is having trouble bonding with his teenage son. And he has a mistress. Pierre lies to his wife, saying he won't accept the spy mission. Trouble ensues. Aside from that, there are several tedious and poorly scripted oval office scenes in which a cartoon cowboy version of Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) spouts exposition to his staff - who really ought to know that, for example, France is a vital ally against the Soviet Union.

There are also lots of moments of light comedy of cultural difference, as Sergei adorably mispronounces the name of Western pop bands and bends Pierre's ear over perceived French national characteristics ("you French are such chauvinists!"). Trite images of the Soviet Union are abound, as imposing statues of Lenin, decommissioned tanks and big scary monuments to the working class dominate the cityscape. Stern men in uniform lurk on every subway and take dour looking people away at the flash of a badge. Ultimately it's a patriotic TV movie about a French triumph rather than a cinematic history lesson.

I recently read an interesting book on the Middle Ages which detailed how the records relating to various kings were amended after their reign at the expressed instruction of the new regime. For instance, Richard III, immortalised as a hunched villain by Shakespeare (writing, remember, for a Tudor audience), was in reality a relatively fair and popular ruler - and there is no evidence suggesting the popular story of his murdering the young princes in the tower is anything more than propaganda. Yet it has endured and, in secondary school, I first encountered that story as a historical fact.

Similarly, that great hero of English patriotism, Richard the Lionheart, was in reality a Frenchman who spent just six months of his decade-long reign in England (a country he despised), and that was only to gather taxes to fund his wars of religious intolerance and indiscriminate mass murder in the Middle East. And yet he is canonised a national hero by a statue outside the Houses of Parliament. History, so it goes, is written by the winners.

But you needn't look as far back as the as the twelfth century to find evidence of that truism: films - the dominant means by which most popular history is now transmitted - frequently pervert the events of even the recent past in the name of entertainment. The two biggest critical hits of the last year, 'The King's Speech' and 'The Social Network', both did this. It's just that they do it better. 'Farewell' is tedious, badly paced and scarcely even redeemed by its Clint Mansell score (which is eerily similar to his work on 'Moon', released the same year).

'L'affaire Farewell', being a French movie, tells us the story of the brave, selfless, ordinary French people for vanquished communism, and to whom every health insurance paying, tuition fee protesting "man and woman of the free world" apparently owe a debt of gratitude (so says Willem Dafoe in a pointless cameo as the director of the CIA). It's a "true story" and yet, funnily enough, all the names and details have been changed. It strays far enough away from "the facts" that there is a sequence in which Sergei's moody teenage son struts around a meadow dancing like Freddy Mercury (who he can't have ever seen) whilst listening to Queen on his Walkman (the epitome of freedom, apparently). It's a reality where Ronald Reagan begins every meeting by showing his aides the same scene from 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'.

It would be unfair to accuse 'Farewell', directed by Christian Carion, of being wholly anti-communist/pro-capitalist, after all the action takes place at a time when France's own government was socialist under the leadership of François Mitterrand. So the film contains lines of dialogue in mild support of socialism: for instance Sergei tells Pierre that French holidays were introduced by lefties. In fact, the film is overall critical of both sides of the conflict, with the protagonists used by competing powers who ultimately show little loyalty to their spies once goals are met.

If it's "pro" anything, that thing is France. It's the story of a French triumph - one that we are told ultimately won the cold war. Reagan wants to interfere with Mitterrand's newly elected government, but the French president rebuffs him and stresses his country's independence, though he does honour their alliance and provides the US with intelligence. This isn't France as a US lackey but as the most vital power in ensuring the ultimate allied victory. It's a film about the moment when France changed history: for better, for everyone and forever. And don't you forget it. Who cares what actually happened? This is what happened now.

'L'affaire Farewell' is out in the UK now and has been rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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