Interview by © Jane Freebury
Keeping political opponents in check by threatening to expose their compromising behaviour, true or otherwise, is not exclusive to Russia, but seems deeply rooted in its systems. Since the KGB had a specific term for it when it became commonplace during the Stalin era.
It must be every international traveller’s worst nightmare to come under suspicion in a foreign country with a secret service that can operate in this way. A new film from France has been inspired by the real-life story of a French bureaucrat, Yoann Barbereau, who fell foul of Russian authorities in Siberia, and became a victim of ‘kompromat’. He managed to escape and elude the FSB (the former KGB) where he was based in Irkutsk, just over the border from Mongolia, then spent 14 months on the run before reaching France.
The very idea of Siberia, with its remote gulags that seem like the ultimate place of political erasure, carries a bit of freight
In this gripping political thriller, the protagonist has a ruthless secret service to escape, and a vast inhospitable landscape to traverse. Kompromat, directed by Jerome Salle, is loosely based on a remarkable escape that took place under the noses of Russian authorities during 2016-2017. His central character, with the name Mathieu Roussel is played by Gilles Lellouche, is falsely charged with crimes but manages, unaccountably, to slip through the fingers of the local authorities. They construct the view, hastily engineered in retrospect, that the mild-mannered official was in fact involved in espionage. ‘He slipped right through our fingers,’ claims a Russian official. ‘It proves he was a spy!’
I spoke to Salle by zoom the other week in a wide-ranging conversation. Our chat zipped right along as the genial French writer-director speaks English well. “My character wasn’t a spy. He was just an average guy and Barbereau wasn’t a spy either, as far as I know.”
The shoot for Kompromat took place in Lithuania, during the pandemic. “Yes, I’ve been to Russia. I made two Largo Winch movies, that were a big success there. The first time was about 12 years ago. That was when I discovered the many things I love about Russia. I also discovered the way they think, and that there is a huge cultural gap between it and Western Europe.”
When he heard how a French official became a victim of kompromat while working in Siberia, Salle realised there was a story for French cinema audiences. He met with Barbereau, who had been an Alliance Francaise official in Irkutsk, just after he returned to France, and started writing a script ‘very loosely based’ on real events.
When further research for Kompromat took him and his co-writer, Caryl Ferey, back inside Russia, the country was changed from some 12 years earlier. “It was a different period. There was no war in Europe but you could feel things were moving already.”
“In Russia, they have a fascination for strength and they really think, in fact, that we (in the West) are decadent. I hope that they are wrong. It’s because we are very open-minded…”
In Salle’s narrative, trouble erupts for Roussel after a dance performance celebrating gay love is staged as a public event hosted by the French cultural centre. Not a well-judged move in a repressive, homophobic regime. Perhaps Mathieu ought to have known that the public display of French cultural freedoms deep in Russia would not be warmly received?
“Mathieu doesn’t want to see that there might be a problem when he invites people for the dance performance. In many ways, he is a little bit weak. He doesn’t want to see the reality of the country around him. Or the reality of his life with his wife. He’s a little bit blind, in fact. He lives in a bubble,” refusing to confront the problems in his marriage to Alice (Elisa Lasowski), before she finally leaves with their daughter.
After a spell inside a Russian gaol, Mathieu is convinced he has no option but to escape, a decision that brings out a very different man, decisive, alert to his surroundings, quick to improvise
Lellouche is very convincing in the role, as his character arc evolves from that of a man in the process of losing his family and career, to a man of action, a talented improvisor with canny instinct for survival. Why did Lellouche seem right for the role?
“Honestly, because he is so very French! I’ve known him a while, since he had a small role in my very first movie. We wanted someone who the audiences would find it easy to relate to. He is very lost, lost in Russia, lost in facing the mentality. He is a metaphor for us facing Russia and not realising the problem we have. That we are in danger, in a way. At the start, it’s very local, just some local revenge against a guy the Russian authorities don’t like. They don’t like the way he thinks.”
However, Mathieu is not entirely without friends. We discuss the character of Svetlana, a young Russian woman Mathieu meets, who is hostile towards her father-in-law in the FSB, and angry about what has happened to her husband, Sasha (Daniil Vorobyov), a war veteran who became an amputee in a recent Russian war. She is attracted to Mathieu but still in love with her husband, although on the verge of leaving him.
“She is very Romanesque, and very loyal to her husband. She has an internal fight.” As Svetlana, Joanna Kulig brings a special magic to her role as Matthieu’s lover and enabler. The Polish actress was striking in the film Cold War. “(With Sasha and Svetlana) I wanted to show a very simple family, a simple couple in Russia. I didn’t want the cliche about nice French people fighting against bad Russians. I tried to show how the French ambassador behaved. Not in a very courageous way. And also tried to show that the first victim of the Russian system is, in fact, the Russian people.”
On a lighter note, I mention the ongoing disagreement between Mathieu and Svetlana on the nature of the smile. “It’s true. When you first go to Russia you feel that you are facing pretty tough people because they don’t have the smile that we use a lot. The kind of polite, automatic smile that you have when you meet anyone. Because Russians think that the smile is pretty intimate that you need to keep for the moment when you’re really supposed to smile.”
“It’s pretty interesting. Also, another cultural gap.”
First published in the Canberra Times on 3 December 2022. Jane’s film reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes