‘Kompromat’ is old KGB slang for ‘compromising material’ or can be used describing the process of destroying somebody’s reputation. The term as well as the tactic is Russian.
Writer and director Jérôme Salle‘s film Kompromat opens with a variation of this as well as “based loosely on a true story”. An expected line we see often, although I was surprised by the ‘loosely’ prefix. This led me to believe the film to be almost entirely a work of fiction. Quite the contrary, the scariest part of this story is just how much of it is true!
Mathieu Roussel (Gilles Lellouche) is a loving father to his daughter Rose (Olivia Malahieude) and is a naïve idealist. As the new director of ‘Alliance française’ in Siberia, he promotes French language and culture to the Russian public. Weeks have passed since his meeting with a co-worker, the beautiful Svetlana (Joanna Kulig). At a bar they drink, they dance, and it all remains fairly innocent. However, this may be all it has taken for Mathieu‘s life to become completely destroyed. Before he knows it, he has been blackbagged and thrown in prison accused of the most heinous crimes against his daughter. Is he innocent, guilty, or is something larger afoot? For Mathieu the ‘why’ is unimportant as he must dig deep to find a particular set of skills to survive.
A timely movie with what’s going on in the world, no surprise the filmmakers could not make this movie in Russia. I’m naïve myself, as to me only a few years ago this film’s plot would have seemed like cold-war era stuff. Instead, the film is based (closely, not “loosely”) on the story of Yoann Barbereau and his fight for survival just in 2016.
Salle maintains an incredibly tense espionage thriller which kept me on the edge of my seat. I am a huge fan of James Bond movies although I find things quite interesting when a regular Joe engages in spycraft. Mathieu finding ways to communicate with the outside and staying one step ahead was fascinating. So, Kompromat reminded me of a more cerebral thriller like No Country For Old Men than it did Goldfinger.
That is besides the more inauthentic moments of the feature which are quite disappointing. A hard-line spycatcher introduced far too late in the film to be taken seriously stands out. As does the romantic sub-plot which would serve the film better had it been eased back on. These few tacky moments are a slight blemish on an otherwise realistic storyline.
While it goes a bit far in some areas, I appreciated the film’s restraint in others. The depth presented here is admirable as this is not simply anti-Russian propaganda, nor is it pro French nationalism. Mathieu, like Barbereau, is unexpectedly assisted by many locals along the way. In fact, some of the more antagonistic players have their dimensions explored as well. In particular, Officer Rostov (Michael Gor) of the FSB (formerly KGB) was surprisingly complex in retrospect.
Lellouche is perfect as the everyman character we can get behind. Innocent enough to stumble into trouble and not even know it, although believable when there is a problem to solve, and his life is on the line.
The rest of the cast are excellent as well. Aleksey Gorbunov as Mathieu‘s lawyer Brodin was particularly endearing. however with his attempts to speak to him in broken French. With little humour to the film, the few light-hearted moments came from this solemn fellow.
Suitably bleak and depressing visually, Kompromat also features incredible sound design and music throughout. Guillaume Roussel‘s score while melancholic for the most part also electrifies the film’s action scenes.
The fact that Kompromat is based so closely on a true story still amazes me. Beyond that, its impact is undeniably heightened with the Ukraine crisis being such as it is. While cheapened by some attempts to masquerade as a Hollywood spy movie, Kompromat is still a solid film. Both exciting and smartly written, it’s a spy film with a difference and deserves to be seen.
Kompromat is in cinemas from December 1st.