The Russians are coming
Right then, where were we? Having seen 5 in 2 days, I’m a bit behind – but my final for the 2010 festival looms tonight, and then it’ll be all about Inception…
A true story of Cold War espionage and key players in the Russian, French and American sides, Farewell is a terrific, understated film that reminded me of those my parents brought me up on in the ’80s – Gorky Park, The Fourth Protocol and so on (an entirely appropriate comparison given the film’s historical setting, as well as its style). Guillaume Canet (a French director and actor whose talent is discussed in earlier reviews in this blog) and Emir Kusturica (the multi-faceted Serbian director/actor/writer/musician) play the young French engineer and aging KGB colonel, respectively, who end up working together to deliver Russian intelligence to the US, thus bringing an end to the Cold War.
Shot in Paris, Moscow and Finland, spoken in French, Russian and English, and with a supporting cast including Willem Dafoe, David Soul and Niels Arestrup (the Corsican gang boss in A Prophet), it’s a tight little story that has you gripped simply because of the inevitable threat to our protagonists’ lives, not because of aliens or monsters or gangsters or natural disasters. The locations and production design nicely evoke the era, and special pleasure is gleaned from watching the colonel’s west-ophile son enjoying the music of “Queen” on his Sony walkman (curiously, the filmmaker interposes footage of a scantily-clad Freddie Mercury in full swing at a live performance – and it’s enormously entertaining).
The plot is simple, but the detail of it is intricate and requires close attention to the subtitles and quick changes of scene and pace in order to follow what’s happening, to whom, and why. The impersonations of key figures such as Reagan and Gorbachev are just subtle enough to be keenly observed but not distracting. And you learn a bit about spying in a pre-Bourne era – all in all, Farewell is a completely engaging slice of a past life.
How I Ended This Summer
And now for something completely different. Two men: young apprentice Pasha (the subtly handsome Russian pin-up Grigoriy Dobrygin, in only his second feature) and seasoned meteorologist Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) work on a remote island in the Arctic ocean, conducting research at a polar station. It’s hard to know what’s more dangerous – the nuclear reactor on the island, from which Pasha takes occasional readings, or the bitterly cold weather that sweeps in across the desolate plains. Connected to their real lives and loved-ones by only periodic communications with the mainland, the tension is wound tight in a masterwork of scripting that must amount to only 4 pages of dialogue.
This contemporary piece of what must surely qualify as “slow cinema” keeps us hanging on every shot, with long-held long shots of the dilapidated farmhouse in which they live and work, and beautiful use of time-lapse photography to signal the passing of days. Actions are repeated, simple meals are prepared and eaten without comment, and the men hardly talk. Not for them amusing banter about pop-cultural resonances or familial anecdotes – Pasha and Sergei are serious about their work, but leave a lot to our imaginations in terms of what they really think about life in this wilderness.
Inevitably (thankfully) things come to a head in a quite startling way, but the outcome confounds our expectations (if, indeed, we were able to formulate any assumptions from the little we’re told). The whole experience of watching it unfold before us so languidly is almost indescribable, and I left feeling moved and decidedly introverted, though no less sure that I had seen (if not quite wholly enjoyed) a truly remarkable film.