Ghostly or ghastly? Cotillard-starring Cannes opener baffles and divides

Jean-Claude Lother, Why Not Productions | Charlotte Gainsbourg (left) and Marion Cotillard in a scene from Arnaud Desplechin's "Ismael's Ghosts".

The 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival opened Wednesday with French director Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts”, a whimsical and erratic portrait of a filmmaker haunted by his past.


Selecting the 20 or so films that compete for the Palme d’Or each year makes the festival’s top job one of the most powerful in cinema. It can also be a thankless task, as Thierry Frémaux, Cannes’ artistic director since 2001, well knows. Two years ago he was pilloried for dissing Desplechin’s “My Golden Years” – by the same French critics who would surely have accused him of “clientelism” had Desplechin landed an umpteenth competition slot. Damned if he did, damned that he didn’t.

To make amends, the French director was invited on the festival jury in 2016. And this year, his new film was given the opening slot – out of competition, but prestigious nonetheless. Except controversy again caught up with Cannes when it emerged festivalgoers would be served a shorter version of “Ismael’s Ghosts”, in the temple of arthouse cinema of all places. As grumbling French critics noted, even American audiences accustomed to seeing movies chopped up by merciless Hollywood studios would be getting the director’s cut.

The cast of "Ismael's Ghosts" attend the photocall on the opening day of the Cannes Film Festival.
The cast of "Ismael's Ghosts" attend the photocall on the opening day of the Cannes Film Festival.

The festival’s curious choice of cut is not the only confusing element in a complex, challenging and wildly erratic film that features multiple plots and subplots, a movie within a movie, and is teeming with references to cinema – in general – and Desplechin’s oeuvre – in particular. “Ismael’s ghosts” is likely to go down well with fans of the filmmaker’s loquacious, neurotic and whimsical dramas, while leaving many others frustrated and cold. Film critics, for starters, were fiercely divided.

There are several overlapping storylines, each of them fanciful beyond belief. One is a love triangle involving self-absorbed filmmaker Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), his astrophysicist partner Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and his vanished wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who suddenly reappears after walking out on him two decades earlier. Another is a bizarre and distinctly uninteresting spy movie which, mercifully, Ismael can’t seem to complete. It stars Louis Garrel as Dédalus, an improbable diplomat whose name will be familiar to Desplechin buffs.

Video: The ABC of Cannes

His sixth collaboration with Amalric, “Ismael’s Ghosts” is Desplechin’s latest cerebral tale of existential anxiety and conflicted love, rife with his customary convoluted dialogue (“I don’t know how to love myself enough to ask you to come”, or “I never ceased not being enough for her”). It is supported by a strong cast and elegant filming, but all too often feels like a cryptic, disjointed pastiche of sketches. Amalric’s part as a rugged, hard-drinking, pill-popping bohemian artist is a tired old trope. And the shifts between drama and comedy which he normally carries so seamlessly here lean towards the downright silly.

Still, with its catalogue of cinematic and literary references, and its meditation on filmmakers’ sustenance, Desplechin’s work is not an unworthy opener for a festival that is celebrating it’s 70th year – and the history of film too. Its formidable trio of lead actors also provides the requisite dose of red-carpet glitter for Cannes’ curtain-raiser. By tomorrow morning, the focus will have shifted to competition newcomer Kornel Mundruczo. His refugee-themed “Jupiter’s Moon” is one of Frémaux’s bolder choices this year. Bring it on.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning