Cannes 2017: Dragged along by two pumped-up exercises in pretension

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      The most stressful part of a Cannes journalist’s first day is the moment when she picks up her accreditation badge.

      Almost all of us know the hierarchy and envy those in the class above us: white, then pink with a yellow dot, then pink, then blue, and lastly yellow. Your position in this caste system will determine the flexibility of your schedule, the amount of time you’ll spend in line, and the screenings you’ll be able to attend.

      Cannes’ trick is that they don’t tell you about your status until after you’ve arrived. They know their game; all we can do is be dragged along.  

      "Dragged along" is just about the only way to watch Arnaud Desplechin’s unwieldy bonanza of a melodramatic comedy, Ismael’s Ghosts, which opened the festival on Wednesday night.

      For those who have seen and remember the director’s previous film, My Golden Daysmore aptly titled by the French Trois Souvenirs de ma Jeunesse (Three Memories of My Youth)—the fact that Ismael’s Ghost is neither linear nor uniform will not come as a great surprise.

      Desplechin pivots from mystery to nightmare, ghost story to espionage thriller, slapstick comedy to family melodrama. The film is a projectile launching in whichever directions it damn well pleases. The would-be central character here is Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a neurotic filmmaker working on the script for a movie about his missing brother Ivan (Louis Garel) who was a diplomat in the Middle East.

      Meanwhile, what seems to be the ghost of his first wife who vanished 18 years ago, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), randomly reappears while Ismael is on vacation with his new lover, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

      But none of these things happen cogently or sequentially: flashbacks of Ivan are revealed to be the product of Ismael’s movie, an apparition of Carlotta is eventually confirmed to be the real person in the flesh, and what is often presented as concrete and true is later fragmented and debunked. “The present is shit,” Ivan says, and the film seems be doing everything in its power to obscure it from ours and Ismael’s view.

      Ismael’s Ghosts is eager to read itself in broad and less than fascinating ways, and Desplechin hands us more than enough allusions and illusions to help us along: A portrait of Carlotta that is peculiarly similar to Madeleine’s from Vertigo, a symmetrical composition of Carlotta and Sylvia with more than a little Persona to it, and an appearance of Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist that is meant to mirror and partly justify the film’s dappled structure.

      Whether we believe this is all an extended nightmare or simply a submersion into a heterosexual man’s sexual and artistic hysteria, the film is still in need of a thematic structure and an emotional logic.

      “The present is shit” could also sum up the thesis to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which requires little explanation outside of two things: it’s Russian and it’s titled Loveless.

      A boy runs away from home while his neglectful mother and distant father begin the process of divorce. Both of them are cheating on each other, the husband with a pregnant younger woman, and the wife with an older, wealthier man.

      But as with the directors previous film, Leviathan, a damning, dour allegory of the modern Orthodox church and Russian state, Zvyagintsev’s focus is once again on all things stereotypically Russian. Although there is less vodka this time around, snowy, foggy landscapes, clinical work environs, and abandoned public buildings make up most of the film’s mise en scene.

      Zvyagintsev reverses his dramatic approach: realism takes the place of symbolism, and a slice of life replaces allegory.

      “To love and selfies,” a group of women in the background of one scene espouse! This a very pointed line of attack and demonstrates the divorce between the director’s sensibility and his approach. Zvyagintsev has always been more adept with the opulent than the miniscule, and in making a film that forms its critique based on distant observation, we can’t help but feel the inauthenticity of these basic human interactions.

      Who knows, maybe his powers might be better suited for a three hour miserablist exorcism of Cannes' bourgeois hierarchy?

      Ismael's Ghosts