One notable point about the films of Christian Carion is that, while they certainly operate within a mainstream appeal and sensibility, Une hirondelle a fait le printemps (The Girl From Paris) (2002) and Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005) nonetheless manage to find a fresh and original perspective from which the director is able to examine questions about what it means to be French, without losing a wider sense of what it means to be human.
This is perhaps most evident in Carion’s debut feature, The Girl From Paris, which took on the familiar treatment of a city girl trying to cope with country life in the Rhone-Alps region, but managed to take an outlook on very different aspects of French society in terms of age, class, location and upbringing with a distinct lack of stereotyping or sentimentality. It was the human element that again took precedence over what would otherwise seem to be a familiar subject in Joyeux Noël, the director also using the situation of a significant incident in the WWI trenches of 1914 to take in a wider historical and humanitarian perspective of what it means to be French.
It’s perhaps surprising then that Christian Carion’s third feature, Farewell (L’Affaire Farewell seeks, and to a remarkable degree suceeds, to explore that certain indefinable French quality in the unlikely setting of a Cold War espionage thriller that would appear to take in the perspective of the Russian and USA governments somewhat more than the French position. It finds those qualities moreover not so much in the character of a minor French diplomat in Moscow reluctantly implicated in an espionage ring at the beginning of the 1980s that would bring about profound changes in the modern world, but rather in the unlikely figure of a Russian patriot.
Based on a true story whose details have only recently come to light, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a senior Russian official and French translator in the KGB with access to sensitive information on Russian intelligence, specifically on what the Russians know about American Cold War operations and initiatives, decides to pass on the information to the USA through the unwilling but beyond suspicion medium of Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet). The leaking of information is not for personal or financial gain or made under the duress of blackmail – Gregoriev, codenamed Farewell, is not seeking to defect or leave his family and a country he loves – but rather he simply believes that the foundation of mutual distrust between the USA and the USSR and the potential for mutual annihilation doesn’t provide the most stable environment for his family and the people of his country, and he seeks to undermine their positions. The relationship that develops between the Russian and Frenchman is not without the occasional side-benefits for Gregoriev of the best French champagne, a book of French poetry and some western music for his son (Queen not quite to the Francophile Sergei’s personal taste, but he owes something to his family for the risks he is taking on their behalf without their knowledge).
Carion depicts the situation well, mostly avoiding the standard espionage thriller almost-caught close-calls (but not entirely, allowing the film to retain some balance between genre entertainment thrills and the film’s deeper political content), in favour of taking in the human element of those caught up in the affair, knowingly or in some cases completely oblivious to what is happening around them. Farewell also succeeds to a large degree in managing to place this within the political context of the time, bringing it up to a higher governmental level that involves Regan, Gorbachev and Chirac (Fred Ward, David Soul and Willem Defoe taking up the duties of the US role in the affair). Some clips of the President watching John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance’ serve well in this respect not only to characterise Regan’s approach to foreign affairs, but do indeed illuminate the nature of the roles, perspective, double dealing and notions of guilt and apportioning of blame that are also necessary considerations in a complex and evidently never entirely above-board business.
Guillaume Canet plays his role of Pierre Froment well, allowing the viewer to understand the issues he has to consider in regard to his duty to his country and to his family, but it’s Emir Kusturica, the Bosnian film director in one of his rare acting roles, who proves to be the formidable and charismatic presence that gives depth to the rather more complex character of Gregoriev. His beliefs and actions don’t always seem to be compatible (Carion brilliantly finding a way of expressing this in terms of his marriage as much as in his spying activities), but Kusturica is capable of expressing these human qualities and failings in a manner that gives the French justifiable claim to playing an important role in making the world – for a little while at least – a safer and more peaceful place.