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Cannes 2017: And So it Begins

Special to AwardsDaily by Zhuo-Ning Su

Picking the opening film is a thankless job. You want movie stars to glam up the event and maximize media exposure. You want a proper auteur at the helm for the prestige and arthouse street cred. People expect you to make some kind of statement with your choice: be symbolic, show relevance, say something. And above all else people expect the movie to be excellent.

Suffice to say it’s no easy task for Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux to settle on the one movie that will open the 70th edition of the world’s most renowned film festival. Speculations started circulating well ahead of the official announcement which arrived atypically late this year – from Dunkirk for its apparent epic scale to Redoutable for its quintessentially French subject matter – until somewhat surprisingly, Ismael’s Ghosts by Arnaud Desplechin was given the prickly honor of being judged first by critics ready to dice anything that isn’t a masterpiece.

So how did it do? Well, let’s say it could have done far worse. Desplechin is a beloved Cannes regular who assembled an A-list French cast for his latest relationship drama. The film, while rather messy in the way its many narrative strands are put together, can’t be accused of playing it safe or not trying hard enough. It’s a formally adventurous depiction of how we’re all chased by the demons of our pasts, sometime to downright crippling effect.

Played by Mathieu Amalric, the titular Ismael is an eccentric filmmaker (what else) who had to declare his wife missing after she left him unannounced 21 years ago. Depressed and traumatized, he moved on, with astrophysicist girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) by his side. Said wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who’s long presumed dead by Ismael and her own anguished father, shows up one day without warning and, as can be expected, all emotional hell breaks loose.

Probably more than any other people in the world, the French are known for their sensitivity. Not to be confused with sentimentality, the Gallic mind seems to come with extra wiring that registers the faintest of inner turbulence. And they don’t just feel more, they also try to articulate the sometimes inexpressible with our finite human vocabulary, which in turn causes more distress. This frustrating quest for emotional truths is on evident display here as each character tries to work through his or her issues with loved ones, which can take elaborate and in some instances near bizarre forms.

For Ismael, this entails making a movie about his perhaps fictional brother Ivan (Louis Garrel), a government agent who got caught up in some foreign espionage plot. In great detail and with almost bewildering enthusiasm, the film reconstructs Ivan’s story and weaves this pretty theatrical rendering of a spy thriller into the otherwise bombs-and-assassination-free drama. The result is undeniably dazzling as layers and styles of narrative collide while Desplechin cuts with musical spontaneity between the past and the present, imagined perils and real nightmares.

In spite of its admirable storytelling ambition and the obvious craftsmanship at play, Ismael’s Ghosts does feel schizophrenically busy at times and proves ultimately unsatisfying as it fails to drive home the many questions it successfully raises. That said, just to put things into perspective, this is still the best Cannes opening film since The Great Gatsby in 2013. With that sense of relief in mind, we can now buckle up for the hopefully surprising, inspiring, electrifying competition program to begin.