We opened this up after skimming the reviews, and zanged it into the DVD player. Because we didn’t read the reviews — we often disagree with reviewers, and most of the reviewers who had seen this film were the sort we disagree with most constantly, the guys who bray about deconstruction of juxtaposition — we were expecting, from the title and blurb, an action-loaded spy flick, set in World War II.
It was a different kind of film. It is a spy film, but a more realistic one (it is based on a true story). There are no guns and little action. There is tension, and a very great deal of talk; it feels a lot longer than its 1 hour 45. Oh, and it’s all in French. Except for the parts that are in Russian. We can follow both languages, but still found the subtitles highly useful, although incomplete and often a little “off,” as if the subtitle guy was not a native speaker of any of the three languages. So if you click back to whence you came, we’ll understand: this isn’t the usual WeaponsMan.com movie review fare. But if you stick around, we’ll tell you about a film we wound up, in the end, enjoying.
Setting and Characters
By 1930, almost everyone had forgotten the White Russians who had fought bitterly against the Reds in the 1918-22 Civil War. They had been driven into diaspora from the United States to China. As many of them stemmed from the aristocratic class of Russians that always looked to France for ideas and fashions, Paris became the center of their organizations, their social life, and their hopeless schemes of return to Russia.
We said almost everyone. The exception, of course, was the Reds and their ruthless leader, Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvilii, better known by his Red conspirator handle, Stalin. To say Stalin kept a grudge is like saying Michael Jordan played a little hoops. Even before his paranoid consolidation of power in the Great Terror of 1937-38, Stalin had started the long-standing Russian of whacking and kidnapping exiles and overseas opponents. The story takes place among Russian exiles, and the central character, Fyodor Voronin, is the secretary of a league of White Army veterans. He was a general at 22. “That’s better than Napoleon!” one of his French neighbors notes. “Well, my career didn’t last as long,” Voronin deadpans. Well, not his military career.
Voronin is played with bipolar perfection by Serge Renko, and his doting wife, Arsinoê, by Katerina Didaskalou. They are a devoted couple; elegant, educated, and attractive, although far from wealthy. Bad investments have erased the White Russian treasure. While Voronin is always engaged in the intrigues of his job — the Soviets, Nazis, and France’s left-wing Popular Front government all have an interest in the remnant Whites — his wife paints pretty, but unfashionable, portraits and life. As the film opens, the mystery of the kidnapping of General Kuteypov hangs over the Whites. Everyone suspects the Soviets, who are the only logical suspects, but proof is lacking. Kuteypov is an actual historical figure, and his kidnapping was indeed carried out by the NKVD in 1930.
As the thirties grind on, director Éric Rohmer keeps us up with current events through contemporary newsreels and, sometimes to the viewer’s vexation, through long expository discussions among the characters. The French government is taken over by a left-wing Popular Front, incompetent in a way that only a French or third-world Francophone government can really pull off. The Nazis rise in Germany, a radical group that drew its inspiration, although not its ideology, from the totalitarian Soviets. The Spanish Civil War offers the nations of Europe a place to shake down their military weapons and tactics, a dress rehearsal for the horrors yet to come. And, most ominously for our characters, the Great Terror begins in Russia with the first show trials organized by Yezhov and Vyzhinsky under the direction of Stalin.
Without plunging deep into spoilers, we learn that even strongly-expressed ideological beliefs may be subject to pragmatic revision — or discarded. That the characters of those we’ve become invested in may not be quite what they seem. Maybe we’re rooting for bad guys. Maybe there are no good guys. We see the tragedy of misplaced trust, on several levels.
At the end of the film, we observed that this was much, much closer to the real world of espionage — tawdry betrayals, tragic endings — than the usual Hollywood depiction. That means, of course, that this film is more of an intellectual workout and less of an emotional reward than the usual spy flick — James Bond cavorting through countesses’ bedrooms, for example. If you read our recommendations for the gunplay and explosions, this might not be your film.
As it is, we’ll take a good brain test like this from time to time… maybe once for every five spatter-pattern fireball flicks. Now, where did we put Chuck Norris Saves Everything XVIII?
Nope, none. There isn’t as much as a carving knife or revolver in the case, although the implied threat of state power, legitimate and clandestine, suffuses the entire film. Even though there is violence and death, it happens off screen, and in one case to a character who is unseen on screen as Godot on stage.
The real Miller-Skoblin case
One of the benefits of the DVD is a mini-documentary, featuring an interviewer, a relative of one of the players (Iréne Skobline), and and a French historian of the period, that explains some things about the Miller-Skoblin case. Yevgeny Miller was the senior general, and Nikolai Skoblin the Voronin character. Much more information on the actual case is available online and in books by historians of the era and particularly of Soviet espionage and black operations. There is no question that the real Skoblin was a traitor to his White allies, and that he was instrumental in the kidnapping and murder of Miller. It’s also agreed that Skoblin met his end soon after — but the Russian archives are silent on where and when. At the time, the early stages of the Great Terror, the Yezhovshchina, named after the NKVD head, were in effect. Many exiles were lured back to the USSR to be murdered. Those that couldn’t be lured were kidnapped or killed in place.
No one familiar with the Soviet security organs of the time thinks that Skoblin died of old age. His actual wife was convicted — unlike the film’s Arsinoê, she was apparently blatantly guilty — and died in prison.
What we liked, and didn’t
The acting was superb across the board: the two key characters of Voronin and are perfectly played, but even the bit players live their parts (it probably helps not to be familiar with these European actors). Gradually you see the personal character of the characters emerge, and the web of deception keeps you guessing until you realize, before the characters on screen come to grips with the idea, that someone you have been watching is really treacherous. Bad things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, and the movie ends with other nad people on top. But whom is the agent betraying, to whom? Is he a double or a triple agent? And how will it end for him?
In the end, the movie hastily ties up many of the loose ends, but leaves as many completely unresolved. That’s probably appropriate for the source material. It’s a gray movie about a gray world.
It’s also a long and slow movie. Is that the fault of the material or the auteur? Does his intended audience, which probably doesn’t include us, expect that? Not sure. It was great, though, to see a movie that was a stylistic and intellectual stretch. Beats hell out of Chuck Norris Kicks Ass CLXXII or something.
Something to find and read
The Wikipedia page on the Skoblin-Miller affair suggests that it was not only the inspiration for Triple Agent, but also for a 1943 story by Vladimir Nabokov, The Assistant Producer. It is perhaps best known as his first English-language-first publication. All English versions of this story before 1995 have been short two paragraphs, and we think the one at this link is one of those… but we don’t have a 1995 edition for comparison. But nonetheless, you started this link with a bit of an art-house movie; and we end full circle with a bit of an art-house writer on the same subject. So aren’t you glad you stuck around?