Farewell Ethics – Hello Cold, New Imperialism

June 28, 2010

 Superimposed over the US flag, the opening title sequence of new French espionage thriller, Farewell (2009), begins as it means to go on: metaphoring New American Imperialism as a blanket laid carefully and strategically behind surface information, powerful in its obtuse translucency. This title sequence is immediately juxtaposed against a view of Moscow in 1981: a landscape covered by a blanket of snow, a converse metaphor for acutely opaque Communist power. Situating the two against one another in such a way from the very outset of the film provides a segue into its less gripping more humanist moral project. Questioning the ethics of both American and Soviet espionage methods and motivations, Farewell would in fact be more appropriately described as ‘character drama’ than ‘slick thriller’, its ultimate concern the resolution of the role of the individual within a greater omnipresence of oppression, post World War II between the “superpowers” during the Cold War.

Farewell is based upon true events and real life KGB defector Vladimir Vetrov whose information about Soviet intel of Western technology was given to NATO via French intelligence service DST, who allotted him the code-name ‘Farewell’. Vetrov’s name has been altered in the film to Sergei Gregoriev (expertly played by Emir Kusturica) as have, of course, some of the details of his life, particularly as they pertain to the circumstances surrounding his arrest. But factual details aside, what writer/director Christian Carion is clearly trying to achieve in the first instance is some semblance of compassion and empathy for the individuals who are so absolutely implicated in activities such as “exposing” other human beings, divulging information about “security” and “defense” in their pawn-like, yet pivotal, roles within the sticky web of international espionage.

Gregoriev’s direct, and significantly physical, tangible, animate contact is unassuming French amateur spy Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a man whose methods and motivations are so naturalistic they are considered absurd within the world of espionage and, he is, as a direct result, seen to be “above suspicion”. His actions so juvenile that his first experience with top-secret documents leads to ridicule from his wife, “It’s not your concern. I married an engineer, not James Bond”; and subsequently to his building of a child-like fort in his own living room so as to photograph the documents privately and separately from said wife; the first of many marital betrayals, a form of deception and secrecy both men struggle to come to terms with throughout the film.

Farewell moves at a slowly escalating pace so that the deeper in the two men get, the more sensitive and revelatory the intel they gather and the more risk involved, the further out in the cold they become, both literally and figuratively. The film moves between seasons climaxing at the crux of winter; the blanket of snow now representing the absolute inescapability of their situations, its coverage too awesome for either one of them to defect or escape without being granted such a privilege from the powers that be. Estranged from their own families and able to talk to no one but each other – as they meet, “out in the cold” – their only solace comes from the comforting words of European lyrics and poems (their enjoyment of Euro-centric culture and indulgences well-played against the younger generation’s fascination with western culture and imperialist capitalism), their only connection to the present moment and time one another.

Their relationship is so intense that Froment is unwilling to deal with the DTS without a guarantee that both he and Gregoriev will be safely allowed to live their lives as free men. Froment is granted a pass for him and his family to live in New York, America being the proverbial “land of the free”, but Gregoriev is none so lucky. In a perfectly shot sequence revealing double identities (pictured above) Froment confronts CIA officer Feeney (Willem Dafoe) questioning his ethical standpoint for allowing Gregoriev – the man who risked his life and gave everything to NATO – to be captured by the KGB. Spouting such clichés as “There can be no change without sacrifice” and “No democracy can survive without the trust of its institutions” Feeney lets Froment know in no uncertain terms that the concept of “Western Democracy” is indeed deeply hypocritical – and even deplorable when deconstructed to the level of implication for the individual – yet still, Feeney shows no remorse.

A carefully considered and well observed dramatic thriller, Farewell leaves its audience in a state of palpitation and reflection over its provocative moral project exploring the ethical implications for many individuals involved in the construction of fundamentally fascistic concepts such as “state security” and “national defense”. A fine film indeed.

Farewell is released in Australian cinemas on July 1 2010 through Hopscotch Films.

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