Do secret agents have hearts that break? In its final minutes, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), delivers an affirmative answer with a pop song – a musical moment discordant with the film’s mostly grey, bleak mood, that conjures everything the world the sad, lonely men of MI6 inhabit is not. While Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel is unconventional from the start, it is still surprising when it ties together its loose narrative threads to the sound of Spanish singer Julio Iglesias singing ‘La Mer,’ a French chanson written by Charles Trenet and first recorded in 1945.
Iglesias’ version of ‘La Mer’ is from his 1976 live album, En El Olympia, recorded at the famed Olympia concert hall in Paris. The song is non-diegetic; the events in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy take place some time before and after November 1973. Iglesias, wrapping his velvet tongue around the wistful French lyrics, is known for his suave, seductive style. To ‘La Mer,’ with its images of silver light dancing on water and hearts rocked by waves, he adds a disco beat. The effect is joyous, carefree, and sunny, promising the sensual pleasures that this muted, labyrinthine, and claustrophobic world has demanded its tired Cold War operatives surrender and sacrifice.
Iglesias’ voice carries us right to the end, as George Smiley (Gary Oldman) triumphantly returns to the Circus (le Carré’s name for MI6). As Smiley takes his seat at the head of the table the audience applauds Iglesias. It’s audacious, and a little funny. But ‘La Mer’ is not used ironically. With its enveloping beauty and swelling intensity, the song exposes an emotional truth, nervously balanced just beneath the film’s austere surface. ‘La Mer’ reveals that Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is in love with Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who we now know is the mole – ‘Tailor,’ the double agent planted by the Russians at the most senior level of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Alfredson has scattered clues in the preceding hours – two photographs of Jim and Bill happy together; an understanding about their ‘inseparability’ since Oxford – we comprehend, without explication, that an intimacy exists, but with the aid of Iglesias’ song, the mysterious puzzle is complete.
As Iglesias’ performance begins, we return to the Circus Christmas party we have flashed back to twice before. But now the focus is on Jim and Bill – on Jim’s intense loneliness and Bill’s carelessness. With two drinks in hand, Bill slithers through the crowd and finds Jim alone in a shadowy corner. He likes what he sees and smiles. Jim sees him and smiles back. Strong employs a series of small gestures that lay bare the secret Jim is keeping at great personal cost. With hopeful eyes on the two whisky glasses, Jim lifts his sullen shoulders and moves them towards Bill, a subtle signal of desire. Bill smiles again then walks away, refusing to give Jim what he wants. The flashback concludes with a close-up on Jim’s quiet agony.
That disappointment feeds the scene that follows. As ‘La Mer’ travels towards a lively vocal crescendo, Alfredson returns us to present time. We see legs striding purposefully: Jim, a rifle slung over his shoulder, outside the government prison where Bill awaits removal to Moscow. If Bill’s rejection at the Christmas party created a deep, still tender wound, now Jim delivers the final blow. He shoots Bill, aiming just below his eye, so it seeps like a tear. The scene ends on Jim’s face, in close-up again, a solitary tear running down his own cheek, in sad sympathy.
‘La Mer’ fills the space of dialogue in these scenes, and because we mostly don’t understand the lyrics, its value is the mood it creates – nostalgic and romantic. In this context, and following the Christmas party remembrance, it’s impossible to see Jim’s actions as driven by ideology or duty. We know, as Jim kills the man we assume was once his lover, that he experiences Bill’s betrayal not to Queen and country, but as a betrayal of the heart – a painful reminder that Jim’s secret double life means he will always be far from la mer and its enfolding, welcoming waves.