Dozens of black limousines arrived Wednesday evening at the Palais des Festivals in the city French city of Cannes, dropping off the greatest stars and filmmakers in French and international cinema to walk along the famous red carpet. Susan Sarandon and Julianne Moore, Richard Berry and Sandrine Bonnaire, Robin Wright and Adrien Brody, Paolo Sorrentino and Pedro Almodovar are only a few of the big names that paused for a moment on the carpet, smiled at the cameras and waved at the thousands of fans. They then finally climbed the stairs leading to the hall for the screening of the film would open the festival, which this year celebrates its 70th birthday.
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There was one particularly patriotic Israeli on the red carpet with the appearance of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, in a white-gold gown whose bottom border bore a picture of the skyline of the Old City of Jerusalem. The dress was designed for Regev by Aviad Arik Herman, and according to the press release, Regev “wanted the dress to express in its spirit the beauty of Jerusalem, in honor of the 50th anniversary of its liberation and unification.”
On Thursday afternoon, Regev will hold a press conference to launch the Israeli pavilion at Cannes, which was built at a cost of 1.5 million shekels ($415,596).
The film selected this year to open the festival is “Les fantmes d'Ismal” by the French director Arnaud Desplechin. It is not an official participant in the competition, but it seems to have been made especially to open such a festival. Not only are the actresses two of the greatest stars of contemporary French cinema (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard), and the highly regarded Mathieu Amalric, who will also be presenting a film he directed at the festival, “Barbara,” it also tells the story of a tormented French director who is haunted by ghosts from the past and fragments of distant memory that destroy his present.
Desplechin was discovered at Cannes 25 years ago when he presented his film “The Sentinel” in the competition. He’s back this year with a particularly ambitious film that skips around chronologically, between genres, styles and subjects. The complex plot doesn’t fit into a few sentences and yet: at the center of the film is a director (Amalric) whose beloved wife disappeared mysteriously more than 20 years before, and whose new love, an astrophysicist (Gainsbourg) recently entered his life. Of course, the beautiful lost wife (Cotillard) returns from the past, and puts his new relationship at risk. Meanwhile a parallel plot follows the director’s slightly oddball brother (Louis Garrel) who joined the French security services as a spy years ago.
Desplechin does not tell the story linearly, he prefers to skip back and forth in a way that sometimes fascinates and builds tension and sometimes just seems unnecessary. The surprising return of the wife, who had been declared dead and left her husband and father broken-hearted, shows a kind of strange but effective combination of a horror movie and an extreme melodrama. At first it’s not clear whether she is a ghost come back from the dead and would take to the edge the nightmares that are driving the hero crazy, or whether she is a flesh and blood woman who will make do with driving one of the movie’s characters into a particularly extreme emotional vortex.
The James Bond elements in the parallel plot turn the whole mix complex and even more dubious.
What saves this film from collapsing into its own chaos is the wonderful acting of the entire cast. Amalric, as Ismael, manages to magnetize and hold all the threads of the story together. Gainsbourg creates an adult character, accepting and stable, who extricates the hero from the depths to which he plunges (although the choice to cast her as an astrophysicist remains a mystery), while Cotillard apparently plays the most fragile, crushed and beautiful zombie that has ever been seen on the silver screen.