Farewell -- Film Review

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Telluride Film Festival

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- It's not easy to find a fresh slant on a Cold War spy story, but the French film "Farewell" almost manages to reinvigorate the genre. In the 1980s a disgruntled KGB agent, who used the code name "Farewell," passed information to the French and Americans that ended up undermining the Soviet regime and contributing to its ultimate downfall.

The picture, directed by Christian Carion, who earned an Oscar nomination for "Merry Christmas" in 2006, takes the basic facts of the case and embellishes with a lot of neat character touches. While the film is too convoluted to stir boxoffice excitement, it offers some rewards for sophisticated moviegoers.

In 1981 Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) is disillusioned with the Brezhnev regime and nostalgic for the time he spent in Paris years earlier. Almost on a whim, he decides to pass secrets to the French. He does not want to go through official channels, so he selects as his conduit a low-level French engineer based in Moscow. Pierre (Guillaume Canet) is not thrilled to be handed so much responsibility.

Nevertheless, his superiors encourage the contact, and over the course of the next several months, the two reluctant spies develop a wary friendship. Both of them have marital problems, so they have a certain kinship that grows in intensity. Eventually, of course, the two of them are endangered by their haphazard mission.

The suspense only works in fits and starts. What saves the movie is the depth of the two central characters. It's interesting that Carion cast two leading actors who are also directors. Canet recently directed the hit thriller "Tell No One." Kusturica has acted in a few films (most notably in Patrice Leconte's "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" and Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief"), but he's primarily known as the director of such Yugoslavian films as "When Father Was Away on Business," "Time of the Gypsies," and "Underground." The two of them demonstrate strong rapport on camera. Kusturica in particular gives a marvelous performance. His hangdog charm wins our sympathy, and his struggle to win the trust of his surly teenage son is deeply poignant.

Unfortunately, Carion too often cuts away from these two compelling characters to examine the larger political context. He even ventures to Washington, where Fred Ward does a rather stiff impersonation of Ronald Reagan and Willem Dafoe has a cameo as the head of the CIA. Perhaps Carion wanted to satirize American gaucherie, but these scenes are clumsy and almost totally expendable.

Toward the end, the film introduces a slew of surprise twists that aren't quite as satisfying as Carion hopes. Plot is not the movie's strong suit. What keeps us watching are the anxious faces of the two excellent leading actors.

Cast: Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Fred Ward, Niels Arestrup, David Soul, Evgenie Kharlanov, Willem Dafoe
Director: Christian Carion
Screenwriter: Eric Raynaud
Based on the book by: Serguei Kostine
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Bertrand Faivre, Philip Boeffard
Director of photography: Walther Vanden Ende
Production designer: Jean-Michel Simonet
Music: Clint Mansell
Costume designer: Corinne Jorry
Editor: Andrea Sedlackova

No MPAA rating, 112 minutes