French director Christian Carion's follow-up to 2005's well-received Joyeux Noel is a decided step up in genre and ambition that confirms his strong command of material, even if it's not quite as devastatingly relevant as it wants to be. Based on Serguei Kostine's true-life tale of a KGB operative turned-double-agent during the waning days of the Cold War, there's no question that Bonjour Farewell possesses strong crossover appeal for political thriller fans not usually lured by foreign-language fare; the problem for micro-distributor NeoClassics will be converting that appeal into theatrical release dollars with sparse marketing resources. Final box office tally will depend entirely on how many screens NeoClassics is able to wrangle, and for how long.
The story begins in the early 1980s when the aggressive anti-Communist posture of American President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) is beginning to open fissures in the once formidable Soviet empire. One such fissure is a KGB Colonel, Sergei Gregoriev (Bosnian director Emir Kusturica), an unlikely traitor who simply sees the writing on the Iron Curtain. Motivated not by money or power but by a desire to see his son enjoy a better life than his own, the cool and collected Gregoriev begins passing documents and information to French intelligence via another unlikely spy, converted functionary and chronic neurotic Pierre Froment (actor/director Guillaume Canet). How their relationship evolves amid higher and higher geopolitical stakes puts a powerfully personal face on events, which even at the time were almost ritualistically depersonalized by their rapidity and unprecedented historical magnitude.
It's hard to watch Farewell without thinking of such '70s classics as All the Presidents Men and Network, mature dramas that Hollywood has since all but abandoned (with intermittent exceptions like The Insider). Boasting top tier Hollywood-style production values and thoughtful, character-driven writing, it's a picture custom-built for older, more discriminating audiences for whom the picture will also likely resurrect memories of the era. At the same time, Carion stays true to his French sensibilities, spending welcome time on the evolution of Froment and Gregoriev's peculiar relationship as well as considering how the affair impacts each of them in their private lives. Opportunities for Hollywood-style pandering (chase scenes, shootouts, etc.) are intentionally missed without so much as compromising a single, suspenseful beat.
Unfortunately, the film's slavishness to history, which is normally a strength in pictures of this sort, too often handicaps the power of the drama, detouring an otherwise intimate story at crucial moments in order to make a broader point about the magnitude of the events in question. While Ward's impersonation of Reagan never quite rings true, the mere fact that Reagan and French President François Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) even figure in the story feels a bit too overly ambitious. That's not to say that Carion's intentions aren't well-placed, he means for the story to have both an emotional and an intellectual impact, and tries mightily to have it both ways. Such misgivings, however, are a minor blot on an otherwise very impressive effort.
In addition to the sterling efforts of Canet and Kusturica, both exceptional filmmakers in their own rights, the film benefits from a variety of fine supporting turns from an excellent international cast: David Soul, Willem Dafoe, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Diane Kruger and Benno Fürmann, to name only a few. Superlative cinematography from Walther van den Ende and another memorable Clint Mansell score cap the effort off with impressive aplomb.
Distributor: NeoClassics Films
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Emir Kusturica, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Diane Kruger, Willem Dafoe, Fred Ward and David Soul
Director: Christian Carion
Screenwriter: Christian Carion and Eric Raynaud
Producers: Philippe Boeffard, Bertrand Faivre and Christophe Rossignon
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 113 min.
Release date: July 23 NY/LA, July 30 DC/CHI/SF, August 6 Exp