The Cannes film festival has begun with a twirl of pure time-wasting silliness from French film-maker and Cannes veteran Arnaud Desplechin. This is an unfinished doodle of a film, a madly self-indulgent jeu d’esprit without substance: a sketch, or jumble of sketches, a ragbag of half-cooked ideas for other movie projects, I suspect, that the director has attempt to salvage and jam together. It is admittedly leavened with the occasional shrug of humour or elegance or interesting moment of performance. But these stylish touches are effectively orphaned, presented to us without any satisfying cinematic or dramatic context. And the tonal switches between sophisticated comedy, mystery and finally tragedy – a final scene attempts an allusion to Cordelia and Lear – are frankly baffling and jarring.
Desplechin’s films are often composed of disparate elements, presented to us like boxes of chocolates for which he hopes we might have a sweet tooth, and this reminded me in some ways of his A Christmas Tale or Kings & Queen, with its moments of fantasy and reverie. Often in his movies the number of tasty or even sometimes rather delicious sweets outnumbers the duds. Not here.
It’s a movie-within-a-movie, so often a heartsinking prospect, and so it proves now. Mathieu Amalric gives us his familiar turn as the boho creative, dishevelled, unshaven, all booze and fags, sexual adventures and devil-may-care candour in conversation. He is Ismael, a quaintly imagined movie director who is working on a film about a diplomat-spy called Ivan: this (very tiresome and unconvincing-looking) film is dramatised on screen with Louis Garrel as the lead. Ivan is mysterious, with an infuriating habit of sleeping on the job and vanishing for long periods. Ismael has put something of himself into this preposterous character and something of his current girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is supposedly an “astrophysicist”. Ivan has a telescope on the roof of the embassy building.
But it is clear that Ismael is attracted to this tale of spying because he is compelled to transform an anguish in his own life into something manageable, something with the same themes of mystery, menace and loss. Because twenty years before, his wife Carlotta, played by Marion Cotillard, vanished. After of decade of frantic searching, Ismael was finally forced to declare his absent wife dead, and has ever since been forced to live with unresolved feelings of grief and rage. So has Carlotta’s father, also a film director (played with heartfelt commitment by Hungarian film-maker and actor László Szabó) who has been a mentor and father-figure to Ismael, sharing in his tears. And then, in the middle of shooting the film intended to be therapy for Ismael’s quasi-bereavement, Carlotta simply returns and utterly upends his life.
It is a painful, arresting situation and Cotillard performs her part in it to the best of her considerable abilities. But the problem is that Desplechin never really keeps faith with must surely be this situation’s essential seriousness. The grace-notes of humour and whimsy simply take over, and the movie accelerates into a headlong rush towards absurdity and farce. Ismael winds up having a kind of breakdown, but one which is neither funny nor emotionally authentic. It’s just a grinning caper.
Carlotta’s own situation is almost ridiculously unconvincing: she is supposed to have lived as a virtual hobo for some years before fetching up with a handsome older man in New Delhi. When she reappears, she is supposed to have been living rough and even “smells”, as the initially friendly and diplomatic Sylvia gently tells her. But Cotillard looks like she is on a break on a fashion shoot. She couldn’t look rough if she tried. None of this rings true.
And eventually Deplechin brings down the curtain on this increasingly chaotic nonsense, whose flicks of directionless fun do not justify its existence.