Christian Carion on L’Affaire Farewell

The French director goes back to the USSR.

by Josh Morrall

Josh Morrall: What first attracted you to the project?

Christian Carion: That someone in Moscow, by working at the KGB, could say, “I want to change the world.” Then three months later, two presidents have to see each other because of him. One guy, just a colonel in the KGB, did something that had a big impact on the fall of the wall in 1989, so for the world it is enormous. This guy is a no one. In France, some people knew the story, but in Great Britain, no one knew it at all. No one in America knew the story even though their President, Ronald Reagan, was so involved in it.

JM: Before you became involved there was another screenplay already written by Eric Raynaud, based on a book by Jacques Attali…

CC: The book is just Russian research, the Russian point of view of the story, so Grigoriev is made out to be a villain. After I met members of the French Secret Service directly involved in the case, they told me another story. They said, “Who in Russia doesn’t drink alcohol?” They all drink. They are always drinking vodka because it is a way of life. So the French point of view was different. Afterwards I met people from the CIA and they told me another story. So I said to myself, “There is no truth.” This movie cannot be a documentary because it is impossible to know exactly what happened. We know a lot of things, but not everything.

JM: How did you weave these different perspectives together?

CC: I tried to respect all three points of view. I gave a screening for the French Secret Service and after the screening I asked them what they thought about the movie. They didn’t say anything… as usual! Except for one thing: “The character of Griogoriev is the guy we knew.” He was patriotic, he tried to do something very naïve. We don’t know how Grigoriev died. His body was never found. I was writing a draft of the script at home one night and somebody called me. My number is unknown. How they got it, I don’t know. The person asked me, “Are you working on The Farewell Affair?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “It’s a very good story. I know personally three or four pieces of information that you should know. Would you like to have coffee?” So I drank coffee with this guy in Paris and he asked me, “Is Farewell dead?” I said, “Yeah.” “Did you see the body?” And I said, “Well, no one saw anything.” We just have the death certificate from the KGB to his wife. So I said, “If you’re telling me he’s not dead, that he’s living in Spain… then anything is possible.” The man put two Euros down for his coffee and went away. So I went back home with that sentence: everything is possible. It helps me very much, to doubt.

JM: Towards the end of the film, you include a clip from the end of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A journalist says to James Stewart’s character that between the truth and the legend, he would rather print the legend. With Farewell, which do you feel you have printed onto film?

CC: I thought that at the end of the credits, as a reward for the people who’ve stayed, I’d include the last scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. My film is the legend of Farewell, because there is no truth. In a story where you don’t have any truth, you build a legend, a kind of myth.

JM: You’ve said before that you can’t have objectivity in film…

CC: No. It doesn’t exist in any movie. When you decide to put your camera here, to shoot you and I talking, this is a point of view, not the truth.

JM: The end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance brings up notions of subjectivity and point of view. Was there a specific point of view that you wanted the audience to take up in Farewell?

CC: I tried to give the audience the different points of view. After the screenings, people ask me a lot of questions because they don’t have a lot of answers. This is what I wanted. I don’t want to give a history lesson. I’m not a teacher, I’m a movie maker. Some people have asked me, “Is Farewell really dead?” I love the fact that they doubt, because I doubt, myself.

JM: Were there any other films that had an influence on you during the making of this film?

CC: Not specifically with Farewell. I never attended a school of cinema. I learned cinema by making movies and watching movies. I learned the grammar of cinema by watching Hitchcock’s movies. I love John Ford’s movies because they are so human, and because of the way he shot the space. Those were big lessons for me. For Farewell, I just asked my crew to watch one movie, All The President’s Men. I love it. It wasn’t a studio movie. This is the power of American movies: they are able to make movies about their own history very soon. In France, this is impossible.

JM: It is quite rare for French cinema to portray political figures. You have two: Francois Mitterrand and Ronald Reagan.

CC: I love politics. I was fascinated that one guy in Moscow could say something naïve and then two presidents have to see each other because of him. I want to see those two presidents. There is a very good British movie, The Queen. I’m a fan of this movie because although I’m not British and I’m not fascinated by the Queen – we killed our Queen – but watching this movie I felt like I was a small mouse witnessing what happened between the Queen and the Prime Minister. That was my idea, I wanted to have someone playing Mitterrand who I could believe. I did my best to convince Philippe Magnan to do it. We were helped a lot by Nicolas Sarcozi because he gave us the authorization to shoot in the Elysee Palace.

JM: As with ‘Merry Christmas’ you have used an international cast…

CC: The first project about Farewell was a script written by a Frenchman who tried to get it made in the USA with a studio. It was to be all in English with Jean Reno and Ben Kingsley. When I read the script I said to my producer Christophe Rossignon that I wouldn’t work with those actors because I wanted to respect the three languages. The Russians should only speak Russian, except Grigoriev because he loves French culture. Mitterrand able to speak English? I couldn’t believe it. Impossible. And Ronald Reagan didn’t know his foreign languages.

JM: But you had problems securing a Russian actor for Grigoriev?

CC: We started with Nikita Mikhalkov, a very famous actor. The Russian Ambassador called the actor, which is amazing. And now the Ambassador is the French Minister for Culture! That’s when Emir Kusturica arrived. He came from an ex-east country so he understood communism and I thought he would be able to speak Russian, but he forgot all of his lines. I respect what he did because he’s not an actor, he’s a director. He was speaking two languages he didn’t know.

JM: Both of your lead actors are also directors. Did that cause any problems?

CC: I was a small part in Guillaume Canet’s film Tell No One, but it was a joke. Guillaume is one of my best friends and I knew he would be perfect as a French engineer – very anxious, nervous and small. The opposite of Emir who is big and calm. I wanted this opposition between the two guys. They didn’t ask any questions about my way of making the movie. They respected me and I respected them. At the beginning it was very difficult between Guillaume and Emir. Guillaume knew his lines three months before we started, but Emir would always forget. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do in three hours. He would come onto the set every morning and ask me to rewrite a scene because it was too long. Guillaume was so depressed. He was crying. He would say, “I can’t work with this guy. As an actor it’s bullshit.” Afterwards, Emir started to take pleasure in acting. He opened himself up.

JM: There are scenes in the Oval Office, which is the first time it has appeared in a French film. Was it difficult to reconstruct?

CC: No. On the Internet you can find all the information about the Oval Office. If you want to build it in your garden, it is possible. Each President changes many things inside. My crew started work on it and we rebuilt it in a huge building in a suburb of Paris. I told Fred Ward, the actor playing Reagan, that the Oval Office was now on a street named Lenin’s Avenue. He said, “No! You can’t do that! Change it immediately!”

JM: Western cinema’s depictions of the Soviet Bloc are always very somber. They use grey, dark, muted hues and audiences have come to align that with Russian communism. This is not the case in Farewell…

CC: Before the clash with the Russian Ambassador, we went to Moscow a lot and met the people there. We asked people if they remembered how it was before the fall of the wall. They said that everything was great. We got a lot of photos and Super 8 films from these people because we didn’t want anything official. We watched all of them and they were full of colours. Women would wear dresses with awful colours. They were very cheap, you could see that, but they weren’t grey. I asked one woman where the grey was and she told me that it was only in her memory. She said that she thought of that time with a grey attitude but that at the time there was none. I was very happy to recreate moments of common life on the streets with the sun, awful colours and so on. They were not happy or unhappy, they were just living the moment.

JM: One scene in the film stands apart from the rest: Grigoriev’s son dancing around to Queen’s We Will Rock You. What was the idea behind that?

CC: In 1981 I was eighteen. I listened to Queen every day. I wanted to see Freddie Mercury on the big screen, almost naked, singing We Will Rock You. By listening to pop music, Grigoriev’s son is almost in the west. There is no war anymore in his head. At the same time his father is trying to change the USSR into a better system. Fuck you. It’s finished. The youth is in front of everything, expecting something to come from the west. I believe that all the music of the west had a deep impact on the way of life of the youth in the USSR. It’s almost as important as the Farewell Affair itself.

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