A fitting aperitif

Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Ismael’s Ghosts, which opened the 70th Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Festival de Cannes

At 70 years of age, the Cannes Film Festival opened on Wednesday with a touch of its glorious past and a heavy dose of present uncertainty. Inside the Palais des Festivals, the bustling headquarters, a decoration motif lays out the key moments of the festival’s history, and special events marking the occasion are planned for the days to come. Meanwhile, for the first time, metal detectors have been installed at the entrance of the Palais and some of the cinemas, stacking up long queues. Flowers pots have reportedly been deployed as part of the strategy to prevent any unexpected intrusions.

The street feels lively, the Sun blazing, and the red carpet ready for the 10-day trampling of gowned and distinguished guests. If there’s the edgy side to this celebration of cinema, it’s those metal detectors — the brooding sentinels guarding the temple of cinema.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the most attended, highest-profile events in the world, and while 40,000 film professionals arrive buoyed by the prospects of good movies and by the new, youthful French president, the world has become such an unpredictable circus that its paranoia creeps in everywhere (remember the Nice bus-attack? That wasn’t very far from Cannes).

Onward then, the movies. The opening film was French, fitting for the 70th anniversary of the premier French festival: Ismael’s Ghosts by Arnaud Desplechin, whose career was launched at Cannes in 1992 when his first feature film La Sentinelle was in the competition. The new film certainly isn’t one of his best, but has its moments of pathos and reflections — and for opening night, it delivered a parade of beautiful creatures for the tapis rouge: Marion Cotillard (as always), Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mathieu Amalric, Louis Garrel. Cannes is a celebration of cinema, of course, but the past 70 years have proved that the festival is also fodder for the popular imagination of what cinema is.

Ismael’s Ghosts is a relationship drama, a story about storytelling, and a refraction of Despelchin’s other films. It veers between seriousness and comedy, between the film we’re watching and the film that the protagonist, Ismael Vuillard (Amalric), is making.

A movie director, Ismael is a man haunted by the past: his wife Carlotta (Cotillard) mysteriously disappeared 20 years ago, and as we know, the man who proclaims that he’s forgotten never really forgets anything. Not a thing. Now Isamel is in the midst of shooting a new movie that’s based on the story of his brother (Garrel), who’s believed to be a spy for the French Foreign Ministry, and many of the images we see in Ismael’s Ghosts are actually from the film he’s making.

In the meantime, Ismael’s dating Sylvia (Gainsbourg), a calm, sensible astrophysicist. When they’re vacationing by the beach, something from the past resurfaces: Carlotta. Turning up out of nowhere after 20 years, she emerges first as a dream (or a nightmare) then takes on the full voluptuousness of a woman, a lost woman who wants to be found again.

Between these two threads — the relationship drama and the moviemaking — Ismael’s Ghosts flips in and out, sometimes coherently, sometimes not. It wants to be too many things at the same time. The almost-absurd conceit — the sudden reappearance of Carlotta and her account of what has happened to her — has the potential to become either a great tragedy or a preposterous comedy. And yet the film is neither, as if Desplechin is afraid to seize the moments in which his characters find their real purposes and take them further, and instead leaving them in a void. In his best films, such as Kings And Queen (2005) and A Christmas Tale (2008), he’s so fluent in charting the course for his many characters as they go through life, giving them clarity as well as doubt. Here, it all seems a little muddled.

The actors save it. Amalric and Gainsbourg especially make Ismael and Sylvia two people who we really care about, a middle-aged couple whose memory of their younger lives keeps inflicting pain upon them. With Cotillard in this emotional threesome, they give the film flashes of genuine sadness and longing, a glimpse of life that is and that should have been. Cotillard has the trickiest task of all as a vulnerable wife, now a selfish homewrecker, a phantom made real by her own conviction. It’s often joked that Cotillard is better in American movies than in French ones — it is a joke, yes, as her American characters are usually too flat, too flimsy, even when compared to Carlotta.

Last year’s opening film was Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, which received mixed reviews. Ismael’s Ghosts, which is showing Out of Competition, may not excite the army of critics converged here like mad pilgrims to the promised land, but it sets the right tone for the next nine days.

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