Hot Russian spies fill our news media and infiltrate our movie screens. From Anna Fermanova or Chapman in the real world to Angelina Jolie in Salt (about a Russian agent who was recruited during the Soviet era to destroy America), plots to topple governments grab our attention.
But one cloak-and-dagger story hitting the theaters actually happened but went the other way around, something detailed in L'affaire Farewell, the new French political thriller.
Based on the book Bonjour Farewell by Serguei Kostine, the cinematic Farewell tells the riveting true tale of a disenchanted KGB colonel -- codename Farewell -- who gives state secrets to a French businessman working in Russia during the '80s.
Devastated by how the Communist ideal has become corrupted under Leonid Brezhnev's regime, he committed treason, and in so doing hastened the Cold War's end and made way for Mikhail Gorbachev, glastnost and perestroika. He acted without seeking financial compensation - much too capitalist for his taste - but rather followed his nose to a new dawn for all his fellow Russians, and especially for his son.
As directed by Academy Award®-nominated Christian Carion (Joyeux Noël), the film boasts a remarkable international cast starring two noted directors who are also respected actors -- Guillaume Canet (The Beach, Merry Christmas, Tell No One) and Emir Kusturica (The Good Thief, Underground, Arizona Dream). The ensemble also includes Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborda Dapkunaite, Diane Kruger, Willem Dafoe, Fred Ward and David Soul.
Farewell crisscrosses romance, politics and the state while telling a compelling story through terse dialogue and understated action.
When Carion came to New York earlier this year to debut The Farewell Affair / L'affaire Farewell as the opening night screening of Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, he gave the following exclusive interview.
Q: How much did you deviate from the true story; were you just inspired by real events, but was more interested in telling your own version?
CC: When I started to work on this project I was coming from Merry Christmas, so I wanted to have everything but the truth. As I started work on it, I discovered that we know many, many things about The Farewell Affair, but there are some elements that are mysterious. I was writing the script at home in Paris, and some people called me at night. How they got the number I don't know. Five, six called.
Q: That must have been interesting -- and a bit chilling.
CC: It was amazing. The first one called to me and said, "Are you working on The Farewell Affair?" I said yes. "Oh you're right; it's a good idea. Personally I know two of the elements you should know. Would you like to have a coffee with me in Paris?" And I said, "Yes."
So the guy came, gave me a name, I don't care if it's true or not. And the first question he said was, "So Farewell is dead?" I said, "Yeah." "Did you see the cops?"
I said, "No, and I know that no one saw the cops." And I said to him, "You know we just have a paper from the KGB to his wife telling her he's dead." He said, "Okay, if the KGB told you he's dead he must be dead."
I said, "Okay, if you're telling me he's not dead and he's living in South America and making some pizzas, everything is possible."
He said, "That's the problem. Everything in the Secret Service is possible." He paid his coffee and went away. So I come back at home writing the script and I said, He's right; everything is possible.
There are some true elements. For example, the things between Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand, we know what really happened because there are witnesses -- American and French ones -- and what they told about Farewell, we really know... But in Moscow we know many things, but not everything. There are some mysteries around this story and I love it. I love the idea that a Secret Service story keeps some secrets.
CC: French, but Russian too because there was a journalist doing lots of research with the KGB archives. We think now that the KGB archives are not honest. Now we feel it. That's why we don't know, for example, my opening is at one point; the CIA knew much more than the French on Farewell itself. But I can't prove it.
Q: Is that why you put the implication in that they knew more, but you really didn't dwell on it.
CC: You know, it's a movie about points of view: the French, the American and the Russian point of view. That's why when [someone] very close to François Mitterrand told me that Ronald Reagan used to watch Westerns, I said, "Why, but why not?"
I imagined him watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Why? Because I'm fond of John Ford, but you know the movie at the beginning you are on the James Stewart point of view, and you believe he killed Lee Marvin.
And then you are on John Wayne's point of view and you understand that what you believed before was false. This is Farewell. You are on the French point of view, you believe something, and then when you are on the American point of view it's another story.
Q: Is he such an idealist? He doesn't want to take money, but obviously a money trail is much more trackable, first of all. You want us to believe that he genuinely thinks he will have an ideological impact? In the scene with Gorbachev, you suggest that even in the KGB there are people with ideals. The issue here about the realistic versus ideal in relationships, politics and philosophy -- that drives your film.
CC: Exactly. I was really fascinated by the idea that there was one guy in Moscow who said, "I can change the world." And three months later two presidents, Ronald Reagan and François Mitterrand, have to see each other because of this guy who said "I can change the world."
It's special. Why he did it... it's a mix of idealism because he was really Communist, he believed in it. When he said, "We Russians, in 1917 we were in the Middle Ages, and then 40 years later we were the first to send a human being into space. It's the truth."
So at that time, during the '60s, they were on the top. They really believed in their system. But in the '70s, everything fell down.
Q: They had some real mediocre premiers too.
CC: Especially with Brezhnev. The way he ruled during the '70s was a real nightmare for the system.
Q: That's what is addressed in the movie.
CC: At the beginning of the '70s they started not to believe in the system, especially with the people in the KGB. The KGB were the top of the top, no? The best engineers and so on. In their position they were able to see the difference between the West and the East because there were spying on the West, so they knew everything.
At that time they said, "Okay, we are losing the game. We are deeply losing the game. What can we do?" And this idea to make a big bang in a way, they said something new will happen. They expected a new Communist system, better than before, but in the end, nothing anymore.
Q: When you made this movie did you say, "I need to have these certain scenes from the book?" You're mining a vast amount of information, so how did you figure out what to boil down to a two-hour movie?
CC: It takes a long time to find a good balance. The first version was a Tolstoy movie; it was too long. But you need to write everything, to read it to see how it works between this scene, that scene, and so on. Then at the end reduce, reduce, reduce, but try to keep the good balance, the good details, which is really difficult.
Q: Americans make movies as big, grand things, so we don't mind putting in living French or American presidents. The French don't usually make films with big political themes, so was it strange to do that because you don't usually see that in French movies? Maybe they do a movie on Napoleon, but you don't see modern figures in the films. French political thrillers are unusual. French filmmakers makes movies of relationships, morality or maybe about the police. The French love crime movies -- but they don't do political thrillers.
CC: That's absolutely true and I think we are wrong because I really respect this tradition here in this country to make political movies. For example, I asked my crew when we were preparing Farewell to watch an American movie with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, All the President's Men.
Q: One of the great movies of all time.
CC: I said to them, "You should watch this movie." First of all because it was released in 1976, produced by Robert Redford, and about Watergate, so it was just three or four years after the real story. We in France we have scandal like every country, but we are not able to do it just three or four years after the real story. We need a distance; we are too shy.
Q: Isn't that funny?
CC: That's why, when I proposed this movie, my producers were really enthusiastic and so on, but when I was trying to find some money, they said, "Wow, François Mitterrand himself in the movie?"
I said, "Yeah, he's a character. I want to see him." "Are you sure? Don't you want just to see his back?" I said okay forget it. it's him in the close-up, but it's not our French tradition." Some critics in France said Farewell is not a French movie.
Q: They thought it was a '70s American political thriller.
CC: For me, he best moments in the history of cinema were the '70s.
Q: In casting this, how did you decide on the cast? You don't always see French playing Russians, for example.
CC: At the very beginning I said to my producer, I want some Russian, French and American actors because of the story, speaking their own language, like in Merry Christmas. Because of its success in France and abroad, I had that freedom to make another movie with three languages and so on.
So I did it. I said okay, you give me the permission, and I will do it, respecting different languages. I started first with the Russian cast. But Emir Kusturica was not my first choice. You know that story?
Q: Just to have Kusturica was an amazing thing..
CC: I went to Moscow and met [Nikita] and he said, "Okay, it's a great story, let's do it together. I'm going to co-produce the movie." He helped me to meet some Russian actors, and I found one of them, an amazing actor. We went to Paris to do some [rehearsal] and so on.
But the Russian ambassador living in Paris called the guy on his cell phone and said, "You are a great actor. The Russian people they love you, and they are right. But the Russian people will never understand why you decided to play a traitor, an asshole."
Q: They really reacted that way?
CC: The actor called me and said, "Forget my name, forget my number, I can't do the movie." So I called back [Nikita] and I said, "Nikita, an ambassador is calling an actor not to do the movie. I thought, "Maybe they do that in North Korea or in China, but in the new Russia?... it's not a new one really.
Q: But you're putting it in front of an international audience.
CC: He said, "No, I don't believe it. It's impossible. I know this guy; I'm going to call him." Then he called me back and he said, "Yes, that's true. You will never get any Russian actor who will accept to play in Farewell."
Because the guy, the Russian ambassador, is now the Minister of Culture in Russia, he said, "Forget Russian actors and shooting in Moscow because you will never have any authorization."
That's why we shot in Ukraine and in Finland for the winter. I proposed Emir Kusturica because I thought he was able to speak Russian, but I was wrong.
Q: He's Serbian but born in Bosnia, right?
CC: He's Serbian.
Q: He didn't learn Russian?
CC: When he was young, like when he was a kid in Yugoslavia, they used to learn Russian of course. But he forgot everything.
Q: He is in his late 50s?
CC: I think 55; he's really amazing in the movie. That's why I thank the Russian Minister of Culture because of him -- I got Kusturica.
Q: It was an uncanny to have Kusturica play the part. I assumed you cast him because he as an actor, he looks the part perfectly -- and I assumed he spoke Russian, French and English. He knows English but I didn't know how much he knew French.
CC: Not so well.
Q: He had to go back in and learn Russian to be able to do this? Serbian isa not that far removed from Russian.
CC: They are very close but with some differences. He spent a lot of time with a Russian professor to remember the Russian language. But it was very difficult.
Q: You've made two films that addresses this underlying humanity underlying politics. You show the humanity of the people within that world. Then there's that larger perspective, of how his actions affect the world. How did you negotiate between the two -- the French and the international sphere?
CC: It's really difficult for me after making the movie to have a distance like you have and to understand. It's very instinctive, an emotional decision you have to make to make that kind of movie or not. I wanted to shoot the two presidents like normal people, like human characters.
I was really excited by this idea and the fact that this guy, Farewell, his private life was very, very important. It's because the relationship with the son, the women and so on make him make the decision to do something. It's not just idealism. though the idealism is there for sure. Remember the scene where he sits on the chair of his boss and says to his mistress, "I'm better than him."
Q: That's why we see the scene where the boss is trying to learn French. Was he trying to learn it because he felt a rivalry with Farewell?
CC: He tried to learn French because he's the boss of a French-oriented team, so he tried to be a French speaking.
Q: And there he is, the boss and doesn't speak any French.
Q: So Farewell looks down on the boss.
CC: So there is idealism and there is jealousy towards his boss. [There are] many, many human elements, but the main one for me was the relationship he had with his son. [It was] very important for me because I have a son -- he's 16 -- and it's complicated. That's why I was touched to imagine the moment when he screened the Super-8 when he was a kid, because at that time they were very close.
Q: Was it hard to create a Super 8 effect? That wasn't shot with a Super 8 camera?
CC: No, no, we imagined the Super 8. We just shot in Paris. We spent one day with a small camera, I was shooting myself with a kid and trying to play, to be like you do now with a digital camera. It was fun.
Q: The French businessman/agent Pierre Froment who passes on his secrets, what is he doing now? Is he still alive? And what's happened to him?
CC: Yes, he's still alive. He's retired and living in the South of France with his wife. He's very wise and old now, he's 80.
Q: You didn't think about putting at the end, "Pierre is now living in..."?
CC: Everybody asks me this and I think it means something. First of all, I said to myself, people seem to be intrigued because they want to know after, so, as a joke, I said, "Okay in Farewell Two we'll come back, and you will know everything."
Q: He really did fool the Russians and drove out instead of taking the plane.
CC: Taking a plane was impossible.
Q: What clued him in that they were onto him?
CC: The true story or the one in the movie?
CC: In the movie there are some letters in the bathroom.
Q: And those were left by the maid? That was the thing that tipped him off and so he actually acted on it. But what made him go to the family? I thought once he got the communication he wasn't going to here from the Colonel again. How would he know the Colonel got picked up?
CC: In the true story what we know... but you know, the guy is still alive, and I met him. He doesn't speak very much. It's amazing. I asked him to come and see the movie. He came and watched the movie.
I said, "So what do you think about the movie?"
He said, "Well, Guillaume Canet played me very well. I'm very proud to be played by Guillaume Canet, my wife is proud."
"That's not the question. The question is about the story."
And all he said was, "I have to go because my sons are waiting for me outside. I can't stay with you." And he went. That's Secret Service people.
Q: But he wasn't with the Secret Service initially?
CC: No, he became one because after the story, when he came back to Paris, they proposed to him some other [assignments]...
Q: And his wife finally accepted it?
CC: Yeah. They went to Lebanon because in 1982, and '83, it was very important to know what happened over there.
Q: You showed the Russian as the idealist and the Frenchman as someone who was just worried that he would get caught; he has no idealism -- he doesn't give a shit. He's just doing it because he's caught in a trap by his job and that his wife would give a shit.
CC: That's it-- he's selfish...
Q: You used the music of Leo Ferre, why Ferre?
CC: In the '80s I was 20 and used to listen so much to Simple Minds, and especially Queen too. That's why I put Queen in the movie. But I said to myself, "Okay, but my parents used to listen to Leo Ferre, and I hated that kind of fucking... it's so French.
But after I was 35, 40, I used to listen to the songs of Leo Ferre, and I said, "Oh wow, not bad." The soundtrack is very important to me and I would love to have seen Queen, of course. I wanted to see on a big screen Freddy Mercury almost naked singing in concert, "We Will Rock You." It was a real concert in November 1981.
Q: Did you have problems getting the rights?
CC: Well when you pay everything is okay. So it was possible and I said okay, we will have it. But Leo Ferre, especially the way they danced together, I mean Emir and Ingeborga, his wife, wow. What I really remember when we shot the scene on the set, it was magic.
Magic because of the music first; Emir didn't know Leo Ferre. I gave to him a lot of CDs of Leo Ferre, and he loved the song. She didn't know Leo Ferre too, but the mood of the song, they said okay let's dance, and they way he danced with her, I was so...
Q: That was improvised by him. But did he know Queen?
Q: You chose Queen -- was that a statement about the West conquering the Russians with "We Will Rock You."
CC: When there is a scene with the small guy, imagine him playing it at the concerts and all the pictures of Freddy Mercury almost naked. I love the scene because him listening to this music, he's on the West even if he is in Moscow. But because of the music, because of the culture, he's compromised. There is no wall in his head.
I was touched by the idea that his guy was almost American in a way by the culture and by the time with his father trying to make something with secret documents to change something in Russia for his son. But the son is not there anymore because of the music.
Q: Audiences, especially younger audiences, don't really remember a world where there was a Berlin Wall. 20 years ago you could be picked up by the cops like that; it's good that you show those scenes of being summarily taken away.
But how can Farewell have been so stupid as to not think about that book that pointed directly to him? Because what really tipped the Russians off to tracking him down was the book. You make us think in a spy mentality.
CC: By the book you mean the poetry book?
Q: You've already shown in the movie the paranoia of what it was like to just walk down the street, and big deal about being registered in the log because otherwise the authorities would have wondered where the hell he was, and he didn't want to create any suspicion.
CC: Exactly. So he tried to hypnotize people who tried to survey him and to be very kind with them giving them cognac and so on, which he did.
Q: I don't understand why neither he nor the Colonel realized that having the book had political implications, since as we find out later it points directly to him as the contact.
CC: Because I believe that the guy who did the research to find Farewell was working for the West. So he gave time not to find too much too quickly because if he did then after for the French people it's finished. So it gave time and not to be so in a hurry to find the good Farewell, to protect the way of the French, to give to them the time to go away. This is my opinion.
Q: Within the logic of the film, why didn't the Colonel or Pierre recognize that by giving the book with the name in it they could be found out?
CC: There is no name. I don't understand.
Q: But they said in the movie that when they looked at the poetry book they found her name in the book that led them to Pierre.
CC: Jessica, the wife. They asked to Farewell, "Why do you have his book?"
Q: Right and he says, "Oh I stole it." But they researched it. That's what helped them know he was the agent or the contact. Or didn't they research it? They didn't believe him that he stole it? They still checked up.
CC: Yeah they don't believe the answer of Farwell, but there are no elements about Secret Service in the book. It's just poetry in Russian and French.
Q: Right, and then he tried to explain he's using the poetry to create a code. Even if the Russians didn't realize that the book tipped them off to who the contact person was, from our point of view, we wonder why these guys haven't realized that with the wife's name in the book, somebody would research who she was in real life -- that she's the wife of a French contact.
CC: That's why at the beginning he said when he proposed he give the book, "I can't accept, it's a personal book."
Q: But he didn't talk about it from the point of view of it as a spy issue. He talked about it as an issue of being the wife's book. You don't even realize how interesting that is.
CC: No, to be honest with you I didn't realize.
Q: This is a critical element in your own movie, that he makes the point of, "Well you took your wife's book and are giving it to me -- she won't miss it."
But the real implications are that they had stopped dealing with each other as spies, and were people. But when you look at it from a spy's perspective, he's giving away that the most important clue for the Russians, once they investigate it, and you didn't realize there's a certain message in your movie. There's a huge symbolism in that.
CC: The movie is not us, it's not ours, because the way people watch it, the way they feel it, understand it, became their movie.
Q: You didn't realize that that is the symbolic exchange. Of course then this book is the ultimate symbol of French culture by its very subversion of the Russians.
CC: One point to you. I didn't feel it. Amazing.
Q: As someone who romanticized the French symbolists, just as Queen is British, giving the poetry book is handing off the ultimate symbol of French subversion.
CC: For sure, I knew that. But what you said about the name of the book and so on, it was an amazing mistake. You're right; I didn't see that. I'll have to reshoot this movie.
Q: It's a critical turning point in the movie. That just caught my attention so much.
CC: Thank you, you taught something to me about my own movie.
Q: I hope that people will appreciate your movie because they're so used to American high energy thrillers, and there's yours done in its own unique French style. Do you think audiences will appreciate the film and its context as they did with Merry Christmas?
CC: It's not a typical Secret Service movie. It's special because the story's special, and maybe the way I shot it was special.
Q: Do you think Russians are happy where their society is now?
CC: I think they would be disappointed by how it is now.