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French Cinema

BIFF 8: L’affaire ‘Farewell’ (France 2009)

Pierre (Guillaume Canet) and Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara)

It’s difficult to judge L’affaire ‘Farewell’ on its festival appearance as there was a technical hitch. Nick assures me that for the whole film, the sound was out of synch. I confess that I only noticed this in the English-language scenes, although I’m sure that when I did watch the actors speaking French (which they sometimes did quite slowly so that even I could understand it), it seemed to be in synch. But what this meant was that the English-language scenes were ruined for me.

The film’s strange title refers to a spy story set in the early 1980s and based on real events. ‘Farewell’ was the code name given by the CIA to a Russian who offered very high value Russian intelligence to the West via a young Frenchman working in Moscow for the French electronics company Thomson. The Russian’s motivation was ideological rather than financial. He thought that by giving the West an intelligence advantage he would advance the collapse of the Soviet Union and prompt a new Russian revolution. He chose the Frenchman (an ‘amateur’) because he had been stationed in France and he still loved French culture.

Natasha (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and Sergei (Emir Kusturica)

The film is not a co-production as such. The production companies are purely French but production took place in Finland and Ukraine. The cinematographer is Belgian, Susie Figgis (mysteriously not mentioned by IMDB) was a casting director and the film features a multinational cast led by Serbian/Bosnian director Emir Kusturica, Romanian Alexandra Maria Lara, German Diane Kruger, Russian Dina Korzun, Lithuanian Ingeborga Dapkunaite and the Americans Fred Ward, David Soul and Willem Dafoe. Guillaume Canet and Niels Arestrup are the French stars. The director Christian Carion is probably best known outside France for Joyeux Noël (2005). L’affaire ‘Farewell’ isn’t the dreaded ‘europudding’ without any kind of identity, but it is odd. It seems very old-fashioned in the way that it is shot and edited. This works in terms of its period setting, but sets up an odd tone. Perhaps the nearest film to it in this sense is The Lives of Others. Perhaps if you recreate the 1980s world of the Soviet bloc accurately, this is what you get.

The other main reference for reviewers is going to be the work of John le Carre. This is unfortunate, I think, if it means that we forget that there is a French commercial cinema (and literature) dealing with spying. Unfortunately, I think that the film makes a mistake in including scenes where Ronald Reagan and François Mitterand appear. Along with another scene in which a Mikhail Gorbachev look-alike appears, these scenes detract from the more ‘human’ story of the two central characters, Sergei (Kusturica) and Pierre (Canet) and their two families. The loss of synch didn’t help but I found Fred Ward’s impersonation of Reagan just made me think of the UK animated satire show Spitting Image and numerous spoofs that appeared on UK TV. None of this was really necessary when I was happy to be engrossed with images of Moscow in the 1980s. and the strange relationship between Sergei and Pierre. In commercial terms, though, I have to say that it is strange to take two of Europe’s young and glamorous stars (Canet and Lara) and deglamourise them, especially Canet , stuck behind huge 1980s spectacles. I fall in love about twice a week in the cinema and this time it was with Ingeborga Dapkunaite as Natasha, Sergei’s wife.

This film should be released in the UK via The Works and I would say that without the synch problem, it should work pretty well – definitely worth a look at the talent on view.

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