In the late Harry Mathews’ provocative mix of memoir and fiction, My Life in CIA (2005), a proverbial American in Paris in the 70s, amused by friends’ suspicions that he is a spy, decides to indulge them by pretending to be one. It is a portrait of a man who discovers he is not as clever as he thinks he is. His Walter Mitty-esque indulgence puts him face to face with an array of real spooks, fifth columnists and terrorists in exile.
By contrast, Éric Rohmer’s penultimate feature involves a character who first appears to be ordinary and content and not a little smug about a life that appears to have peaked far too early. It is 1937 and the man in question, Fiodor Voronin (Serge Renko), a former officer in the White Russian Army, lives in Paris with his Greek wife, Arsinoe (Katerina Didaskalou), and works for the Russian Army General’s Federation, a modestly funded relief organisation run by General Dobrinsky (Dimitri Rafalsky). On the surface, Fiodor is a man on the other side of ideology; while he has no time for the Stalinism now defines communism abroad, he is under no illusions that he and his fellow exiles are a government in waiting. When he and his wife make friends with a younger couple, Janine (Amanda Langlet) and André (Emmanuel Salinger ), Fiodor politely, but clearly puts their naïve faith in socialism for all and fondness for modernists like Picasso in their place. Where idealism manifests itself, it appears to be in the way he dotes on his wife. Similarly, Arsinoe also seems immersed in bourgeois domesticity – her more adventure side sublimated in the traditional figurative paintings she occasionally sells to friends.
But as is the case with Rohmer’s more contemporary and familiar depictions of romantic flux, there is dissonance trembling beneath the calm and confidence of these middle-class characters. Despite Arsinoe’s love for her husband, she can no longer ignore the gossip from friends that Fiodor’s trips abroad are not related to his Federation work, but suggest he is involved in espionage. Given the couple’s centre-right conservatism and fondness for bourgeois comfort, Arsinoe is worried he is working in some way for the Nazis. Then her suspicions turn to the growing sense that Fiodor is in trouble with the communists due to his connection with active White Russian dissidents or involved in some duplicity involving them directly.
To her credit, Arsinoe does not wear her unease lightly. She calmly, but forcefully confronts Fiodor about his suspicions. And like a master spy, Fiodor artfully deflects them. As played by the charismatic Serge Renko, Fiodor’s calm, urbanity and gentle wit convince the viewer at the same time – that this man is essentially who he says he is – a survivor, weary of the internecine conflicts that tore his homeland apart and turned a young man into an adult all too quickly.
Although there is a lightness of tone to much of the banter and debate between characters that distinguishes Rohmer classics like Claire’s Knee (1969), My Night at Maud’s (1970) or The Green Ray (1986) here the truth and self-awareness is far more brutal; informed not by personal growth, but by the cruelty of mid-20th Century realpolitik at its most cynical.
Rohmer’s source material for Triple Agent was the still contentious abduction by the Soviets of a White Russian exile called General Miller, the president of the Russian War Veterans. His deputy, General Skobline, a double agent working for the Bolsheviks, along with his glamourous wife, the singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya, was suspected of having had a hand in his disappearance and also the false case that led to Miller’s death during the Stalinist purges of the late 30s.1
The extent of Skobline’s involvement was proven as he disappeared quickly after Miller’s abduction. The French government charged his wife as an accessory and she died of illness in prison in 1940. It is this real-life relationship which becomes the fictional scrim through which the theatre of Triple Agent, where the personal and political is entangled, is viewed.
There is a self-conscious theatricality to Triple Agent’s direction which reinforces the sense the community of exiles and idealists in the film playing, to varying degrees, at marital bliss, promoting internationalism, keeping the White Russian flame or trying to build a second life, but ultimately just buying time. Rohmer, who so soften seems a documentarian of the heart, barely moves beyond the soundstage here. The encounters in the claustrophobic apartments, offices and cafes broken only by the chapter breaks of newsreel footage that detail the rise of Leon Blum’s Popular Front government during the period and the latest news of the Spanish Civil War. In Triple Agent, it is history not desire which shapes everything.
Throughout his filmmaking career, Rohmer was known primarily as the least political of the filmmakers of his generation. Not unlike Woody Allen, his praxis seemed to be revealed through references to other films, books, poetry, painting, architecture or philosophy in the abstract rather than acted out on the barricades. Rohmer’s preoccupations had until the final years of his formidable career focused on the battleground where passion, heartbreak and renewal take place. His take on the French Revolution, The Lady and The Duke (2000), which preceded Triple Agent, was criticised for its conservative slant. And perhaps taking on board some of that disapproval, Rohmer has created a very sly mix of that shades of grey we associate with the spy fictions of Graham Greene and John LeCarre, but with the visual tropes we associate with a well-made play; a little Private Lives, a dash of Terrence Rattigan and an echo of Faydeux.
Yet in the end it is all Rohmer, a world where the said and unsaid has as much, if not more power, than a secret code or a pointed gun. Like his best work, Triple Agent is as much about the secrets that lovers agree to keep from another in exchange for other kinds of truth as it is about the clash between fascism and communism. And as with his best work, it is the deceptive simplicity of how Rohmer assembles his materials that gives the film its emotional and intellectual power long after the credits roll.
Triple Agent (2004 France 115 minutes)
Prod Co: Rezo Productions, Compagne Éric Rohmer, France 2 Cinema, BIM Distribuzione, Alta Produccion, Tornasol Films, Mentor Cinema, Euriimages, Cofimage, Canal+, CineCinema, Wild Bunch, Strada Productions Prod: Jean-Michel Rey, Francoise Etchegaray and Philippe Legeois Dir: Éric Rohmer Scr: Eric Rohmer Ed: Mary Stephen Prod Des: Antoine Dontaine Phot: Diane Baratier Mus: Dmitri Shostakovich
Cast: Serge Renko, Katerina Didaskalou, Amanda Langlet, Emmmanuel Salinger, Cyrielle Clair, Grigori Manukov, Dimitri Rafalsky.
- Stuart Jeffries “Agent Provocateur”, The Guardian, 26 October 2004. ↩