If there is one genre that has never become acclimatized in France, it is the spy film. The fortune of OSS 117 (the parody, not the original) rests on this incompatibility. It at least guarantees The Farewell Affair the merit of originality. Story of an affair which weakened the Soviet services in the early 1980s, Christian Carion’s film is carried by a precise scenario which nourishes a duo of inspired actors, Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica.

Pierre Froment (Canet), a young French engineer stationed in Moscow, is contacted by Sergei Grigoriev (Kusturica) who introduces himself as a KGB colonel. He declares himself ready to communicate information which will allow the Western camp to neutralize the campaign of pillaging of industrial secrets by the USSR. In reality, obtaining these secrets allowed François Mitterrand to demonstrate to Ronald Reagan that he was a “good” Westerner, despite the presence of communist ministers in his government.

The Farewell Affair, a summary sketch of the great global game, would perhaps collapse under the weight of its ambition without Emir Kusturica. The director of Time of the Gypsies (1988) occupies the entire fictional space of the film, inflating his Lubyanka bureaucrat to the point of giving him Shakespearean proportions. Idealistic, Grigoriev refuses any payment other than a few bottles of cognac and Queen records for his son, a teenager who only dreams of Walkman and Levi’s.

Moscow before McDonald’s

The little French engineer is the complete opposite. At first overwhelmed by the burden, scolded by a wife who is not deceived by his lies, he gradually develops a taste for the game of espionage. Guillaume Canet negotiates this transformation with subtlety, helped, to define the initial mediocrity of his character, by the clothing and hair fashions of 1981. Later, the scenario gives him slightly less convincing aspirations for heroism.

If Grigoriev’s trajectory remains fascinating from the beginning to the end of the film, the last part of The Farewell Affair – which moves further and further away from historical accuracy – does not quite live up to its beginning. Christian Carion clearly takes pleasure in going back and forth between a pre-McDonald’s Moscow and the nightclubs for oligarchs and the White House (reconstructed) and the Elysée (it’s the real one). It seems that he is reluctant to explore further the formidable ambiguity of the Russian traitor, leaving all the burden of this work to his actor.

At the time, this weakness barely appears. The story continues to advance quickly, and we remain under the spell of this invitation, unusual in French cinema, to construct fiction about our recent past.