Adam Bessa Blazes in gripping French thriller

A riveting, expertly judged thriller, powered by some dazzling performances, Ghost trail (Les Fantômes) starts Cannes’ Critics’ Week sidebar in top-notch form.

French director Jonathan Millet’s feature debut revolves around a Syrian exile who tracks down his former torturer in France and is a work of visceral intensity and formidable control, pulling you into a tight grip and holding you there. The cat-and-mouse premise and the smooth, nerve-wracking execution are familiar from countless other geopolitical spy/manhunt stories on big and small screens. But if Ghost trail it doesn’t necessarily buzz with novelty, it creates an invigorating sense of craft and purpose – of ‘getting the brief’, as the children might say – both behind and in front of the camera.

Ghost trail

It comes down to

A gripping manhunt film with a creeping punch.

Location: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week)
Form: Adam Bessa, Tawfeek Barhom, Julia Franz Richter, Hala Rajab, Shafiqa El Till
Director/screenwriter: Jonathan Millet

1 hour 45 minutes

Working from a screenplay (“inspired by true events”) written in collaboration with Florence Rochat, Millet demonstrates a keen insight into paranoid-thriller mechanics: fluid camerawork, sharp editing, propulsive music, terrifying sound design. He also has a refreshing preference for intimacy and clarity over distancing stylistic or narrative fuss. Considering how often these films’ plot convolutions make us feel like Winona Ryder in the SAG Awards meme, Ghost trail‘s straightforwardness is a blessing—evidence that the writer-director is interested in the protagonist’s experience as something more than a vessel for instant genre gratification. Indeed, one of the film’s satisfactions is the way it allows us to focus on the stakes of the story rather than on indecipherable double-crosses or unconnectable dots.

Best of all are the two fascinatingly matched performances at the heart of the film: the stealthy emotional punch of French-Tunisian protagonist Adam Bessa (Extraction) and a chilling supporting turn from Tawfeek Barhom (the Palestinian star of Cairo Conspiracy). Ghost trail should give their profiles, and that of Millet, a strong international boost.

We first meet Hamid (Bessa) in 2014, as Syrian soldiers dump him, bruised and limp, in the desert along with a truck full of other men. The film then jumps forward two years and sees Hamid on a construction job in Strasbourg (northeastern France) as he approaches colleagues with a blurry photo of another Syrian he is trying to locate.

The film traces the details of Hamid’s life and helps us piece together his past and present. He lives in a sparsely furnished studio, its drab wallpaper covered with scribbled notes, where he watches news reports detailing the Syrian government’s attacks on its own people. Through video calls with his mother – currently in a refugee camp in Beirut – and sessions with officials who helped him establish residency in France, we learn that he was a professor of literature in Aleppo and imprisoned for political dissent. While he was in prison, his wife and young daughter were killed in a bombing.

Hamid is now part of an underground network of Syrians who pursue fugitive accomplices of the Assad regime across Europe and hand them over to local authorities for arrest and trial. His latest target, as confirmed by his handler (Julia Franz Richter), is Sami Hanna, alias Harfaz: the man who administered Hamid’s brutal weekly beating, as well as that of other civilian detainees, in Sednaya prison.

Early in his quest, Hamid makes a tentative friendship with fellow refugee Yara (a very nice Hala Rajab), who studied medicine in Syria but runs a tailor’s shop in Strasbourg. Their conversations are at once guarded and imbued with a primitive longing, conveying the mistrust and disconnect – that extra level of isolation – within certain exiled communities. “Even here we have to be suspicious,” Yara tells Hamid. “You never know who is on which side.”

Yara helps trace Hamid Harfaz (Barhom) to the local university, where he is a chemistry graduate student. The catch, of course, is that Hamid can’t identify his target with 100 percent certainty because he’s never actually seen him; he was blindfolded during the assault. Furthermore, when the unit conducts a background check using the name Hamid sees on Harfaz’s ID card – Hassan Al Rammah – the report points to a person listed on the file as an enemy of the Assad regime.

Yet Hamid feels deep in his gut that the slim, bespectacled scholar hunched over his books in the library is the monster who left him with a map full of scars on his back, not to mention the psychological wounds that might will never heal. Other members of the cell accuse him of ‘wishful thinking’, but Hamid is certain that the voice and even the smell of the man he is following belongs to his torturer.

Millet manages to ratchet up the tension, aided by Yuksek’s swirling electro-infused score and the deft layering of ambient campus noise – whispers in the hallway, creaking chairs, the shuffling of papers – with Hamid’s own throbbing heartbeat. The filmmaker and DP Olivier Boonjing film Bessa up close as Hamid spies on his suspect and listens to recordings of victims’ testimonies; we see the glint of sweat on his skin and the contraction of his jaw, we hear his breathing become ragged.

Yet Millet doesn’t linger or ogle, drawing us into the character’s trauma-ridden headspace in a way that feels sympathetic and never sensational. Ghost trail which makes it look easy, but the film walks a tricky line: it’s a juicy piece of entertainment that’s also genuinely concerned with its painful, timely subject.

With dreamy, almond-shaped eyes and high-cut cheekbones, Bessa has a soulful movie-star magnetism that he modulates flawlessly here. The actor shows us both the cracks of acute panic and the deeper recesses of despair, but also an enduring softness, beneath Hamid’s practiced stoicism. It’s a deceptively economical, richly affecting performance.

Throughout the first half of the film, we see Harfaz through Hamid’s covert POV, from behind or at a distance, from odd angles or around corners. When the two finally come face to face, sitting across from each other over a canteen meal, it’s a hushed showstopper of a scene – a mental tug-of-war in which every question asked and banality exchanged is charged with terrifying unspoken meaning.

Alternating teasing warmth with coded menace, Harfaz does not radiate outright evil, but evokes a much more disturbing mix of bitter disillusionment, guilt, loneliness and pent-up anger. Barhom is masterful, turning the simple act of chewing food into something somehow both sinister and vulnerable, jaws, teeth and salivary glands working in a sickening concert.

True to the machinations of hidden agendas and unspoken fears, Ghost trail is notable for its discretion – its refusal to spell out or elaborate on character backstories, politics, historical contexts, or themes. (The light touch is especially welcome when it comes to the thread between grieving parents and spouses, a mainstay of contemporary cinema.) The film, however, is not at all self-consciously sparse or cryptic; it feels just full enough.

That’s partly due to Millet’s willingness to slow things down, to capture fleeting examples of sensuality, beauty or connection: cardamom seeds placed in a teapot; Yara’s fingers rest gingerly on Hamid’s bare stomach as she bandages his wound; tasted a spoonful of honey at a Christmas market.

In a surprising scene, Harfaz offers Hamid up Graybe (Middle Eastern butter cookies) while taking a study break on a remote campus lawn. At first the situation feels fraught with danger: is this an ambush? But after Harfaz chooses one of the pastries and takes a bite, Hamid does the same. “Good?” Harfaz contacts Hamid to see if he likes it. A long shot shows them side by side enjoying this taste of home, surrounded by tall grass and flowers, their wordlessness interrupted only by the sounds of birds and a light breeze.

It’s an uncomfortably beautiful moment, in which the horror of what these two men are to each other is overshadowed by something shared and inexpressible: nostalgia for a lost motherland. That kind of human and moral complexity stands out Ghost trailwhich ultimately leaves a pang of sadness that is hard to see, and harder to shake.