FAREWELL / L’AFFAIRE FAREWELL

Cineworld Glasgow, 29.04.11

Based on true events leading up to the end of the Cold War, Farewell follows the story of Colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a Soviet in Moscow, who begins supplying information to the West, using Pierre Froment  (Guillaume Canet), a French engineer, to smuggle out secret Soviet intelligence and crucially a list of high-ranking Soviet spies working in the West, the revealing of whom contributes to perestroika and the thawing of relations between the two superpowers.

The film works best when it concentrates on being a terrific spy thriller.  Scenes of suspense such  as Gregoriev secretly copying information in his bosses office, or of Froment becoming increasingly paranoid, and his eventual fleeing with his family, towards the border as they realise they have been compromised, are where the film excels.  Equally, the film works as a drama, as we see the effect on both Gregoriev and Froment’s wives and children as they recklessly risk their safety in order to supply the information to the West.  Both Kusturica and Canet, more famous as directors these days, give strong performances in the lead roles and there is neat support from Alexandra Maria Lara as Jessica Froment, Niels Arestrup as French agent Vallier and Willem Defoe as the head of the CIA, Feeney, who gets to deliver a neat twist at the end.

Less successful are the film’s attempts to show how these events act in the wider, political aspects of the world.  It is never made totally clear in what way the outing of the Soviet agents actually precipitates the demise of the Soviet Union.  In fact, if anything, the film suggests they played a very small part in the larger scheme.  Perhaps if the filmmakers had concentrated purely on the spy thriller aspect of the story it would have carried more gravitas.  Secondly, and perhaps a greater crime, are the attempts to represent the real life politicians involved.  Fred Ward, as US president Ronald Reagan, delivers a caricature, playing on worn stereotypes of Reagan sitting in the White House watching old Hollywood Westerns, seemingly unable to grasp events around him, while David Soul, as his physician Hutton, sits next to him looking askance.  While not a great supporter of Reagan, this portrayal seems overly simplistic and perhaps even cruel.  Philippe Magnan as French President Mitterrand is equally under-whelming, and a cameo by Vsevolod Shilovsky as Gorbachev in one scene seems like a needless diversion.  Also misjudged is Gregoriev’s son, Igor’s, fascination with Western culture.  Initially providing reasonable motivation and some comic light-heartedness as Gregoriev struggles to comprehend ‘Sony Walkman’ and the British band Queen.  However, when the film stops to have Igor give a karaoke performance, intercut with footage of Queen and Freddy Mercury in concert, it has taken the symbolism a step too far.  If intended as a comic moment it falls exceptionally flat, as with the snippets of Reagan.  Or maybe I’m influenced by a personal dislike of Queen! 

Fortunately, these quibbles aren’t enough to de-rail the central espionage plot, and the reveal at the end goes some way to redeeming the portrayal of the Americans – they weren’t all incompetent after all.  Christian Carion directs with a nice sense of gritty realism, in the style of the early Harry Palmer films of the 1960’s, rather than the James Bond series.  There is also an effective and simple score from Clint Mansell that adds to the brooding atmosphere.

A solid European spy thriller, worth seeking out.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

P.S. Incidently, I would like to thank the projectionist at Cineworld, who managed to top their usual poor standards by presenting a trailer, not only upside down, but also with sound and vision running backwards.  A truely unique experience – I have no idea what film it was for!

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RENOIR, MY FATHER

RENOIR, MY FATHER
Jean Renoir

A biography of the Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, by his son, the French film director, Jean.


In principle, this is a simple book.  A fond, often sentimental, look back at the life one of the great artists of the late 19th, and early 20th, centuries, as remembered by his middle son, himself a famous artist in his own field, writing at a distance of forty-odd years after his father’s death.  Jean begins with the image of himself, wounded during the First World War, returning to the family home and spending time with his crippled father as he painted on during his final days, while recounting tales from his life and passing on wisdom to his son.  But it is this very dynamic that makes this more than a simple biography.  Not only are we dealing with a giant in the art world in Pierre Auguste, but we equally learn about the education, background and motivation of one of the great artists of cinema, whose films would go on to inspire the French nouvelle vague and countless others. 

The art of both the father and the son still resonate in the modern world, something that would surely delight them both, because one of the preoccupations of both the father and the son, which runs throughout the book, is the state of the modern world and the technological changes that were sweeping through France at the turn of the last century.  According to Pierre Auguste, the industrialisation of all industries was a travesty, destroying many people’s way of life, including his father’s work as a tailor and his own first job hand painting silhouettes of Mary Antoinette onto porcelein ornaments, and replacing them with machines.  not only that, but Pierre believed that the mechanisation of industry and art withdrew the personal uniqueness of objects and material in favour of mass-produced products of inferior quality.  Similarly, Pierre was disgusted with modern architecture and architects and town planners who had ruined the rambling, vital suburbs of Paris.  Linked to this too, was a mocking view of the French bourgeoise and middle classes, whom Renoir believed to be frauds, acting above their station and looking down on the working man, which Pierre believed himself to be throughout his life, even once his paintings gained renown and value.  this view of the bourgeoise is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Jean Renoir’s  film Le Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939),one of his truly great films.  Another of his great films was La Grande Illusion (1937) which was based on Jean’s views  and experiences of war, and it’s pointlessness and absurdity.  Again, these views align closely to the father’s, as Pierre Auguste is presented to us a pacifist who would not harm the tiniest insect and decried any loss of human life through warfare.

Jean presents his father’s recollections and sayings in quotation marks, literally putting words into his father’s mouth, and while it easy to speculate about the accuracy of everything that is presented to us, it certainly succeeds in forming a charming picture of the man.  Jean vividly paints scenes with the words he writes, often introducing a major incident in Pierre’s life before diverging on a tangent before teasing the reader back to the original point.  this rambling, though never incohesive, structure lends the biography a distinct charm, much like the rolling French countryside that surrounds the Renoir family on their summer vacations.  To read the book is to be immediately transported to a simpler, rural place of lazy sunny afternoons as Pierre paints a landscape out in the fields.  Unlike the typical biography, this book is not a statement of facts, it is not strictly chronological, and much of Jean Renoir’s storytelling cannot be regarded as fact, but this is not the author’s intention.  Instead, unlike any biography I have ever read, by the end of the book, as an aged Renoir puts down his brush for the last time, crippled by Rheumatism and quietly, unassumingly passes away, the reader cannot help but feel they have inherently gotten to know the great artist, that you have spent time in their busy Paris apartment, been inside Renoir’s studio as he paints his favourite models, or joined the family in their country retreat (great credit must go to the translation into English by Randolph and Dorothy Weaver for maintaining this feeling in the prose).

And the son too does give plenty of insight into the work of Pierre Auguste, describing in detail his preferred method of working, the models he preferred to use and the changing colours that made up his palette.  Alongside this we get a portrait of a rich family life, a loving and lasting marriage and an endless stream of fiends and relatives all made welcome by the Renoir’s.  This includes brief glimpses of the lives of other great Impressionist artists – including Manet, Monet, the ‘mad’ Cezanne, Sisley, Pisarro, Gauguin – art dealers such as Durand-Ruel and Vollard, and any number of writers and musicians.  In doing so, the book also becomes a potted history of this radical artistic movement that took the art world by storm at the turn of the century, initially ridiculed and rejected and eventually taking its place within the canon of painting.  And, of course, the other talented Renoir’s are here, eldest son and brother, Pierre, a distinguished theatre and film actor, and his son Claude, who would follow his Uncle Jean into film as a renowned cinematographer, working on some of his uncle’s films.  And Jean’s younger brother, also Claude, who too collaborated with Jean on several of his films.

It is quite a beautiful memoir and an insight into the artistic temperaments and inspirations of two of France’s giants, both in painting and cinema.  And that also is the other benefit of this biography – it deals with two individuals whose story is definitely worth reading, who have something vital to say about their own lives and about philosophies of life in general, and who have lived full and long lives in which they have attained a certain wisdom.  A look at the bookshelves of endless tacky ‘celebrity’ biographies, would suggest this is also a rare thing and this book should be treasured and valued for that reason alone.  It helps that Jean Renoir has also produced such an exquisite read.

BRITAIN’S SECRET HISTORY

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5
Christopher Andrew
MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949
Keith Jeffrey

To mark the centenary of the creation of both the British Security Service and Secret Service (they both started as one organisation before evolving into the two separate  organisations early on), both MI5 and MI6 opened up their archives to distinguished professors, allowing them wide access (though not unlimited) to documentation from the turbulent years in the build up to the First World War until the beginning of the Cold War in the case of MI6, and up to present day for MI5.  The result is these two histories, mapping the personalities, politicians, spies and intrigues of Britain in the 20th-century.

Both Andrew and Jeffrey detail exhaustively the early years of both services, from their beginnings as more or less one man operations, with the formidable personalities of Vernon Kell heading up the fledgling Security service and Mansfield Cumming at the Secret service.  Initially beginning in the same office, Cumming soon moved to separate premises and the rough delineation between the two services remits was formed.  The Security Service would deal with homeland security, threats within Britain and counter-espionage, while the Secret Service took on foreign intelligence gathering and the recruitment and running of agents abroad.  What both Jeffrey and Andrew detail extremely well is the amount of bureaucracy, political manoeuvering and Whitehall paper shuffling that hindered the organisations in the early years, matched by the lack of resources and amateur ‘social club’ atmosphere that pervaded.

By the end of the First World War, during which both services had proved their value in helping towards victory, the need for more professional, well-funded and professionally organised intelligence gathering was evident.  However the form that this should take was still debated hotly, with the three main arms of the military lobbying for their own interests, alongside the politicians.  Both Kell and Cumming set in place standards that remain to this day – that both MI5 and MI6 should not be used as political tools by incumbant governments to spy on opponents, and should act as gatherers of information but not interpretors or policy formers.  That said, in the inter-war years both organisations were focused on the threat of communism from the USSR, and the Communist Party in Britain was particularly targeted by MI5, on suspicion that they were in fact infiltrated with Soviet spies, and were taking orders directly from Moscow (which they were).  The obsession with the Communist threat is largely attributed by both histories as the main reason that the threat from Nazi Germany was overlooked.  Both organisations were well aware of the political and military danger growing in Germany, but with limited resources concentrated on the Soviet threat, failed to warn early enough, and crucially forcefully enough, about the significance of these events.

During the Second World War both services excelled overall, although each had their own series of mishaps along the way.  MI6 ran the famous code breaking unit at Bletchley Park, responsible for decoding German radio signals (including the famous Enigma machine), while both services ran succesful counter-espionage operations, particularly in the run up to the D-Day landings of Operation Overlord, where they successfully managed to obscure the real mission from the Germans by disseminating disinformation.

The sensitive nature of MI6’s work on foreign soil means its history disappointingly ends in 1949, but Andrew is able to carry on MI5’s until present day, although it is notable that it becomes less detailed the closer to the present day we become.  It does, however, provide enlightening insight into major events, particularly the unmasking of the ‘Cambridge 5’ spy ring in the Sixties, when Kim Philby and his associates were discovered to have been moles working for the Soviets within the British Services for decades.  Philby himself, the nominal leader of the five, worked for both MI5 and MI6 undetected, from before the Second World War.  The paranoia this unmasking unleashed both within MI5 and amongst the other intelligence partners they worked with (most notably the American CIA) gives a fascinating insight into Cold War attitudes.  It is at these moments that the real life history closely resembles the novels of (former Service employee) John le Carré, or the spy films of the sixties and seventies.

The contemporariness of the MI5 book is shown by the fact that it includes reactions to both 9/11 in America, and more pertinently to homeland security, the 7/7 London bombings of 2005, for which MI5 was severely criticised, and has had to defend itself on numerous occasions.  As I was reading these books, a senior MI5 officer was giving evidence at the 7/7 inquest in London.

In mapping these time periods, both histories begin by concentrating on the various leaders of the organisations and the impact each had.  They are exhaustive in detail about personnel, staff levels, about the structure of the organisations, funding, departments and locations.  If that sounds mundane, it is necessarily so, because what most overwhelmingly emerges from these histories is that both Security and Secret Service work is far from that shown in the glamourised fictional accounts in novels and films.  While SIS has plenty of tales of foreign agent derring-do in the wars, it is marked by how much of their intelligence gathering is centered on tasks such as train and ship watching – for every agent secretly photographing images within Soviet or German territory, there are several more keeping an eye on coastlines and train stations and reporting back to Britain.  And above all else, the real heroes from these books emerge as the civil servants working in Whitehall and at the various offices of the services, gathering information and passing it on to those that need it in the military forces and governments.  That said, some stories, particularly from the MI6 operatives offer a fascinating glimpse at the life of an agent.  And certain famous names and affairs are covered as expected.  The creator of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming, pops up on a couple of occasions in the MI6 history, although don’t expect to find much of the glamour that Bond is synonymous with in here.

Issues such as the lack of equipment and trained operators, for example the wireless sets used by foreign agents to communicate with London which were in constant shortage during the Second World War, mark obvious parallels with Britain’s present overstretched forces, and other similarities exist that mirror our world today.  The role of the Britain in the Middle East was as controversial before during and immediately after the world wars as it remains today, and the issue of oil and propping up friendly governments in these oil rich states was as topical an issue then as it is now.  By contrast, MI5’s role in the breaking up of the British empire, in securing friendly relationships with the majority of former Commonwealth nations as they achieved independence, is regarded as quite a success, with some exceptions.

Due to the sensitive  and classified nature of some of the material, as stressed by each author in their introductions, there are times when you do feel the hand of redaction on the histories, and are left wishing to know just that bit more detail or drama, and one can only imagine the secrets both Andrew and Jeffrey are now party too, but can never disclose.  The limitations of the tasks both have taken on however, do not detract overall from the concise yet detailed histories provided.

These tombs are not a light read, and the endless listing of appointments to various posts and departments and the reorganisation of services can easily leave the reader floundering in detail, but if genuinely intrigued by this secret history, and interested in an alternative look at the incidents of the 20th century that have shaped the Britain of today, then they are well worth a concentrated read.

LITTLE WHITE LIES

Glasgow Film Theatre, 17.04.11

A big hit in France last year, it says a lot about the attitude of UK multiplex chains, and the disinterest of the British audience for foreign language films that in Glasgow Little White Lies is not showing in the city’s 18-screen multiplex, whose screens are occupied with multiple showings of the Easter holiday, kid-friendly Hop  and Rio and teen-lite nonsense such as the awful Your Highness, Fast Five and Arthur (three films that could be used nicely to sum up the torrid depths Hollywood cinema seems happy to plunge to).  Thankfully, the GFT provides, as always, an excellent alternative, and a nicer environment, in which to take in this enjoyable drama.

Despite a serious accident involving their friend Ludo (Jean Dujardin), a group of friends decide to go ahead with their annual vacation without him, at the seaside home of Max (Francois Cluzet).  There, they enjoy the sea, sand and sunshine, but as two weeks pass, their relationships develop as each learns more about themselves and their friends, and the little white lies they all tell to one another.

Despite the serious injuries that leave Ludo in a coma in a Paris hospital, the group have plenty of fun, and although this can jar – surely, if they cared so much for one another, they would be at his bedside – it does lead to genuine, laugh out loud comedy, occasionally bordering on farce, and coupled with the holiday feel and beautiful scenery, the film is easy to enjoy.  Cluzet, as Max, particularly delivers some great moments as his over-stressed, control freak personality is tipped over the edge when long time friend, Vincent (Benoit Magimel) declares his love for him.  Unable to know how to respond, Max takes his temper out on invading weasels, his friends and their children.  Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) also provides laughs as he tries to deal with a recent break up, and Marion Cotillard is exquisite as Marie, Ludo’s ex-girlfriend who is struggling to find fulfillment in life.

A criticism of the film could be made as the tone veers from all this French frolicking to the terminal injuries that have stricken Ludo, and his death provides the denouement as everyone gathers for his funeral.  Each friend gets to speak at the side of his coffin, and this scene feels too forced and unnatural alongside what has gone before, not helped by the fact that it comes after 150 minutes – the film feels like it could do with 15 minutes trimmed off.  On the other hand, Ludo’s fate casts a shadow over all the fun the friends have, and provides the motivation for all to think about their situation and where they have come to in life.

But these are only minor quibbles in a good film. Guillaume Canet is wise enough to let his delightful cast have their moments, perhaps the only downside being that Dujardin, so brilliant in the OSS 117 films, is rendered bed ridden so early, thus robbing us of seeing his considerable talent being added to the ensemble.  Still Cotillard and Cluzet are magnificent, as are all the leads. 

Together with his debut feature, the thriller Tell No One (2006) also starring Cluzot), Canet is definitely a director to expect more from in the future, combining the French flair for intelligent, though-provoking cinema, alongside genuine entertainment. If only more people in this country would, like the French cinema going audience, embrace such a combination.

Film rating: 4 out of 5.

MEEK’S CUTOFF

Glasgow Film Theatre, 15.04.11

The people at Soda Pictures, the film distribution company responsible for this month’s release of Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist Western, Meek’s Cutoff, know how to win me over.  Through the medium of Twitter they ran a competition to coincide with the release, offering followers the chance to win Reichardt’s previous two films, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) on DVD, and luckily for me I was one of the fortunate winners.  A couple of days later and two DVD’s, plus a delicious Wagon Wheel arrived in the post.  It seemed only fair, then, that when I turned up to the Glasgow Film Theatre to find Meek’s Cutoff starting imminently, that I ventured in to see it.  It turned out to be rewarding experience.

The film is loosely based on real events from 1845, when families used the Oregon Trail to head West and pioneer new lands.  A mountain man, Stephen Meek, convinced some families that he knew a shortcut through the mountains that would lead them to their destination quicker, but in reality the families found themselves trekking across rugged desert, running out of water and abandoning possessions along the way.  Some survived to reach their destination, while others perished en route.  The film follows three families and their wagons as they follow Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and grow more and more desperately lost.  As we join them at the film’s opening, Thomas (Paul Dano) is already scraping ‘LOST’ into the bark of a dying tree.  They are soon running low on water, hungry, unsure of which direction to go in, losing faith in Meek and capturing an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) whom they hope can lead them out of the wilderness.

If the plot reads like something straight from a classic John Wayne Hollywood Western, Reichardt’s, and regular writing collaborator Jon Raymond’s, approach is very different.  Much of the film is shot from the point of view of the women on the trail.  The character of Meek, a role one could see Wayne portraying as the leader of the little band, in fact turns out to be deceitful, rash, hot-tempered and a fraud, desperate only to preserve the fallacy that he knows what he is doing.  But the other men in the group fail, initially, to stand up to Meek, while the women look on, tending to every day things – washing the clothes, cooking, sewing and mending.  This is a side to the west largely ignored by Hollywood.  Eventually the men do start to mistrust Meek, in several conversations we see from the women’s point of view, the men debate what step to take next – the women get no say in this, but  it is Emily Tetherow (an excellent Michelle Williams) who most defiantly stands up to Meek when he threatens to kill the Indian they have captured, staring him down with gun drawn.

Stylistically too, Reichardt subverts many of the established conventions of the classic Western.  Notably, she shots in the Academy ratio 1.33:1 (a square screen) rather than the typical 1.85:1 or 2.35:1.  The widescreen ratios have traditionally suited the wide vistas of the open plains, revealing the epic expanses of empty land.  Here, Reichardt shows the stunning Oregon scenery, but by confining it to the narrower screen conveys the trapped feeling of the pioneers, unable to escape the endless desert.  It has also been compared to the restricted view that the women view the vast landscape in, as their bonnets narrow their field of vision, again trapping them within the vast landscape.  The pace of the film too contradicts the typical Western film.  There is little action on-screen, the most traditional element of a western – the riding out by Meek and Tetherow (Will Patton) to capture the Indian – happens off-screen, while we wait with the wagons, like the characters in the film, unsure of what is happening.  There are no big action sequences, no horse races, no shoot outs.  Instead, Reichhardt concentrates on the monotony and harshness of the daily trek suffered by the pioneers.  Slow dissolves, pans and static shots document the painstakingly slow progress across the plains, and the physical hardship that the families are experiencing.

The film’s ending is also ambiguous.  Against Meek’s warnings not to trust the native, the families decide to follow the Indian, believing he will lead them to water and safety.  After days of walking he leads them to a lone tree in the middle of the arid land.  If there is a tree then there must be water.  The families debate whether they should carry on or turn back, Meek is reduced to following whatever the families decide to do, and it is left to a democratic show of hands as to what option they choose.  This time it is the women who are lobbying and making decisions.  Emily watches the Indian wander off into the distance and the film ends.  There are several interpretations of the ending that feed back into the previous hour and a half of film.  Widely critiqued is Meek’s Cutoff  as a political allegory for America’s years under the presidency of George W. Bush, and the Iraq war:  Meek represents Bush, an unqualified leader out of his depth, reactionary and hostile; the West becomes Iraq; the American Indian the Iraqi people whose country has been invaded; and the families represent the American people, initially following their leader and later becoming suspicious of his ability and motives.  The Indian wandering into the distance represents the uncertain future that lies ahead, or the possibly the hope that Barack Obama brought with him in 2008.  Interestingly, Reichardt has herself admitted to another political interpretation that casts Meek as Obama rather than Bush.  The film was shot as Obama was taking office and yet his years since taking charge, from the certainty and optimism of a bright future to the uncertain economic and global conflicts of today, can also be mapped onto the travails of the Oregon trail.

In the end Meek’s Cutoff is a strong enough story and film to stand on its own without needing to read allegory into it, and as a revisionist, feminist Western it brings a new twist to one of the oldest of American film genres.  And I can also recommend Reichardt’s earlier films, particularly Michelle Williams as Wendy and Will Patton and Lucy the dog again, in the excellent Wendy and Lucy, a simple, touching film, that can be enjoyed nicely with a tasty Wagon Wheel.

Film Ratings:
Meek’s Cutoff – 4 out of 5.
Wendy and Lucy – 3.5 out of 5.
Old Joy – 2.5 out of 5.