Film: Stephen Applebaum reports from the Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival would have wanted to start its 70th edition on a high note, and this year's opening night film, Ismael's Ghost (**), looked like it had all the right ingredients. A homegrown film from the Cesar-winning director Arnaud Desplechin, starring the cream of French actresses, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard, and the always watchable Mathieu Amalric, it practically oozes promise. In reality, however, the film is a patchy, incomprehensible mess, which comes over like an obscure private joke. It revolves around a film director, Ismael (Amalric), and his lover, Sylvia (Gainsbourg), whose lives are disturbed when Carlotta (Cotillard), the wife Ismael thought had died after going missing years earlier, returns to claim her man.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard in Ismaels Ghost, opening night film of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

This weird love triangle, beautifully acted by all, should have been enough. But Desplechin throws in a film-within-a-film, and finally a director-in-crisis plot which, played for laughs, sinks Ismael’s Ghost into silliness. The director is known for his freewheeling approach to structure, but here the frenetic, ADHD-like genre hopping (he’s called Ismael’s Ghost “five films compressed into one”) and jarring tonal shifts result in bafflement rather than revelation.

On a more sober note, Vanessa Redgrave has made her directing debut with Sea Sorrow (***), an impassioned cri de coeur about the plight of refugees; in particular, the thousands of unaccompanied children that have found their way to Europe. Beginning by making us go eye-to-eye with refugees as they relate their harrowing stories, the documentary views today’s crisis in the context of past ones and the public and official responses – not so different from today’s - they generated. Redgrave finds a personal connection in her experience as an evacuee (or internally displaced refugee, as she also puts it), while Lord Dubs, whose amendment to the Immigration Act was supposed to help thousands of unaccompanied children settle in the UK, recalls coming to England on the Kindertransport. NGO workers in Calais’s jungle are interviewed, dramatist Martin Sherman offers a compelling observation about the mental state of refugees, and Ralph Fiennes enacts a relevant portion from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the source of the film’s title.

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Made on an obviously small budget, the film is aesthetically crude but makes its argument, that governments are falling short of the principles enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with great passion and sincerity. Moving footage of screaming children scrambling from an overfilled dinghy onto a rescue boat is something no one is likely to forget in a hurry.

A film with Best Picture Oscar stamped all over it, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (*****) makes you feel exactly like its title. Adapted by writer-illustrator Brian Selznick, from his own YA novel, the film brings two deaf kids, Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), to New York, 50 years apart, looking for the people they hope will fill the holes in their lives. Her story, set in 1927, is a shimmering, black-and-white silent movie. His is a bustling, funk-inflected explosion of colour. You know they will connect, but the mystery that keeps the film ticking is how.

Haynes immerses the viewer in the children’s worlds, filling us with the very sense of awe and wonder that they experience as they move through this enchanting love letter to the Big Apple, cinema and the ties that bind us together. This is magical, moving, mesmerising filmmaking, from a director at the height of his powers.

Imagine The Corporation, Fast Food Nation and E.T. blended together, and you might come up with something close to Bong Joon Ho’s Okja (****). Co-written by Ho and Jon Ronson, this thrilling, heart-warming, madcap and occasionally shocking film pits a young girl (An Seo Hyun) against corporate nasties, led by twin sisters played by a scenery-chewing Tilda Swinton, as they try to part her permanently from her lovable, genetically-engineered super pig – yes, really – Okja (a CGI marvel).

Although the Netflix title card was booed by cinephiles resistant to the streaming channel’s encroachment into the Cannes Film Festival Competition, this prime cut will satisfy Ho’s fans, and should earn the talented Korean many more when the film airs on TV at the end of June.

Fans of rock music and Abel Ferrara get a helping of both in his lively documentary, Alive in France (****). Shot last year, the film chronicles Ferrara and his band’s preparations for gigs in Toulouse and Paris. At first they seem chaotic and unprepared, but the organic process that keyboard player/composer Joe Delia says informs their process when they score Ferrara’s films, prevails. When they hit the stage, joined by the director’s sultry young wife, actress Cristina Chiriac, they are a punchy, tight-knit unit. Ferrara and his fellow 70s survivors’ camaraderie – they all nearly died many times over, said singer-actor Paul Hipp, after the screening - is warm and engaging, making them a fun (and unpretentious) bunch to be around.