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Cannes 2017: The Caste System, And Phantoms From The Past

A daily dispatch from the 70th Cannes Film Festival, including thoughts on the new film from Arnaud Desplechin

Baradwaj RanganBaradwaj Rangan

May 17, 2017 | 07:05 PM

Cannes 2017: The Caste System, And Phantoms From The Past

On the first day of the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, I became a victim of what long-timers here jokingly call the caste system. It has to do with the colours of the badges. The most coveted colour is white. You get a white badge, and you can swan in and out of screenings without waiting in line. Next, pink with a yellow dot. Then pink, blue, yellow, orange -- the last two categories for bloggers and the like. I snagged a blue, which I was told wasn't bad for a first-timer, but that only meant I got priority over orange and yellow. It still couldn't get me into the screening of Sea Sorrow, Vanessa Redgrave's debut as director, "a personal, dynamic meditation on the current global refugee crisis".

Standing in line for the press screening of Arnaud Desplechin's Les Fantômes D'Ismaël, the amiable man in front of me - a Turk doing his PhD in Film Studies in the US - narrated a horror story from a year ago. A white badger, climbing the stairs ahead of the others, actually turned back and clicked a picture of the long queues of the colours below him. Cannes snobbery? Or just the fist-in-the-air equivalent of a traveller who knows he never needs to fly Economy again?

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Thierry Fremaux holds a post that sounds like something in the army: delegate general. Considering what he does, though, the analogy sounds right. He is in charge of both the artistic direction and the overall management of the festival. He continued the theme of caste/class wars when Screen magazine asked how his life changed when he transformed from festival-goer ("one of those people roaming the pavement in front of the Palais at eight in the morning, demanding a place") to festival team member. He simply said, "I was a beggar and I became a prince." 

Fremaux sold his festival in a most convincing fashion when asked whether cinema would exist in 70 years' time. "Since its beginnings, people have been announcing the death of cinema, but it has always survived. Of course, the world is changing, practices are evolving. My children spend their time surfing the net, but if I say we are going to the cinema on a Saturday, they jump for joy. It's like going to a theatre, a stadium or a concert. I love Bruce Springsteen's records but he is even better in concert. Cinema is the same. Cannes Film Festival is the equivalent of 15 concerts a day."

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The Desplechin film was a typically confounding affair. It begins with a discussion at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where ominous-looking men talk about a secret agent named Ivan Daedalus (Louis Garrel), who's fallen off the radar. Then, we discover that this is a film being shot by a director named Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), and that the two stories are mirrors. Ismael's wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) has fallen off the radar, and during her disappearance, she has been with men from all over the world, including one in New Delhi. (In other words, she's been having "foreign affairs.") As Carlotta narrates this New Delhi story, we get flute and see-tahr music, the kind that's heard in restaurants in the US named Taj Mahal or Kohinoor.

In a way, Les Fantômes D'Ismaël was the perfect film to open the festival (it played Out of Competition), because it's about the real (Ismael's story) and the reel (Ivan's), and how much one feeds off the other. Also, it's a maze of movie references. The name Carlotta goes back to Hitchcock, whose Vertigo was about a woman named Carlotta who, well, went off the radar. The technique of an under-production film reflecting current events in a life goes back to The French Lieutenant's Woman. And what about Desplechin's own oeuvre? Names (Daedalus) and locations (Tajikistan) from earlier films -- plus his regular leading man, Amalric.

The filmmaking is as free-wheeling as ever. A scene's editing pattern keeps alternating between hard cuts and dissolves. Entire flashbacks are reduced to monologues delivered in close-up. A sex scene is shot in close-ups too, not just of the faces but the bodies as well. Cotillard dances to Bob Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe (key lyric that defines her: "I'm not the one you want.") And there's a third narrative in here, set two years before the present, about how Ismael got together with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). 

This stretch has the film's loveliest scene, where Ismael asks to see Sylvia's apartment and she says no and he begs and she relents. Inside, he pokes around, sits on the bed and tests its comfort level, looks around some more and then declares it's all very pretty. She asks if he isn't going to kiss her. He shakes his head and leaves, with the happiness that should they decide to become a couple, at least the house is going to pose no problem. 

But what -- other than the often-seen theme of life imitating art -- is this all about? Desplechin once said, "When I am writing the script I don't predict the way I will shoot it. So on the set I'm trying to surprise myself, I'm trying to surprise the crew and the actors." But this process of discovery would be better if the audience was similarly engaged. With these actors, the film isn't a write-off, though, especially with Cotillard's nude scene revealing a stunningly perfect body. Forget filmmakers, painters and sculptors would die for her dates.