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Cannes 2024: Ghost Trail, Block Pass

Opening this year’s section is Jonathan Millet’s “Ghost Trail,” in which a Syrian war refugee (Adam Bessa) hunts his former torturer through France while struggling to heal from the scars, both literal and figurative, that his quarry left him with. 

Once a literature professor in Aleppo before he was imprisoned by the government, subjected to unspeakable brutality, and eventually sent marching into the desert at gunpoint, Hamid (Bessa) barely escaped Syria with his life. Having lost his wife and daughter in a bombing, he relocates to France and joins a secret European network dedicated to tracking down and capturing Syrian war criminals. Though Hamid is alive, his war never ended; once he’s assigned to capture Sami Hanna, aka Harfaz, the man responsible for carrying out his weekly beatings at Sednaya Prison, Hamid becomes obsessed with completing the mission, soon becoming convinced that Hasaan (Tawfeek Barhom), a student at his local university, is Harfaz in disguise. 

But Hamid never saw Harfaz’s face since he was blindfolded during the torture sessions; even as he insists to his handlers that Hasaan is the right man, he plays a first-person shooter game, blasting away enemies no sooner than they enter his line of sight. As Hamid follows his target from the library to a local running route, even to the apartment where Harfaz visits his French girlfriend, his fury and anguish is compounded by the sense that his torturer might be living the life he’s still unable to imagine for himself.

Bessa, who won an Un Certain Regard acting prize two years ago for a similarly intense performance in “Harka,” plays Hamid as a man haunted, at once compelled by his desire for retribution against his tormentors and painfully aware that no consequences that might befall them will bring back all that was taken from him. With shoulders slumped and eyes hollowed, Bessa turns Hamid into a living shadow, lingering in the periphery, unable to fully confront the man he holds accountable for his trauma but unable to shake it any other way.

Millet’s first fiction feature, “Ghost Trail,” furthers the examination of people in exile he’d previously undertaken as a documentary filmmaker, reapproaching this subject matter as the driving force of a taut, if contrived, psychological thriller. What cuts deepest is the vérité depiction of trauma as a spiritual wound, one that follows survivors wherever they go, denying them the chance to live free. The film culminates not with the outburst of violence Millet’s taut direction and Yuksek’s throbbing electronic score lead us to envision, but a moment of longing, shared between Hamid and Hasaan, for the homeland they’ve both lost. When this happens, “Ghost Trail” reveals itself as a more fraught, sorrowful affair than its cat-and-mouse setup first indicates.

Set against the steadily revving engines and propulsive forward motion of the French motocross scene, Antoine Chevrollier’s feature debut “Block Pass” is a poignant and painful coming-of-age story about two young men whose friendship is tested by circumstances that complicate their lives in a rural French suburb. 

Both mechanic Willy (Sayyid El Alami) and competitive motocross racer Jojo (Amaury Foucher) are reaching that point in their teenage years, with final exams coming up, where things start to change. Accustomed to spending days at the La Pampa training grounds their fathers founded together and their nights hanging around with friends who have few ambitions beyond shooting off guns and sneaking into the local pool, Willy and Jojo are bonded as well by the burdens they’ve come to bear in early adulthood. Still mourning the death of his father a decade prior, Willy struggles to accept that his mother (Florence Janas) is ready to move on with her new boyfriend (Mathieu Demy). Jojo is gay, though he conceals this fact from his hard-driving father (Damien Bonnard), who’s consumed by preparing him to win a championship title. 

Of course, Jojo’s secret eventually gets out, and Chevrollier (who wrote the script with Berenice Bocquillon and Faiza Guene) is unflinching in his portrayal of how a small town’s prejudices can inflict irreversible damage on a young person’s sense of self. In the aftermath of this painful revelation, “Block Pass” feels somewhat adrift, gathering less steam than it should as Willy finds himself caught between racing at the track and charting a less fixed path. 

Two years ago, Lola Quivoron’s “Rodeo” stormed Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section and won its “Coup de Cœur” prize (literally, a “blow to the heart”); set within France’s urban motocross culture, it used the scene’s adrenalized, high-testosterone environments as the backdrop to its female protagonist’s allegorical rite of passage. Chevrollier’s film makes for a thought-provoking double bill with “Rodeo,” capturing the masculine energy of motocross as an outlet for youthful abandon that can just as quickly turn fatal or constrictive. El Alami and Foucher, in charismatic lead performances, embody that contradiction without making their characters feel anything less than authentic in their shared, self-destructive drive to rebel.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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