Ismael’s Ghosts, dir. Arnaud Desplechin│ The ethereal quality of Arnaud Desplechin’s films makes it often quite difficult to write about them, and his 2017 Cannes Film Festival opener Ismael’s Ghosts isn’t an exception. Yet this elusiveness, together with a sense of often overwhelming ambition, make this particular film possibly the best picture we have of Desplechin’s buzzing mind.
Following his tradition of cinematic alter egos, Desplechin centres on Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a “fabricant de films,” literally “manufacturer of films” who, as this strange expression suggests, takes his craft very personally, making movies out of all the pieces of his life. Desplechin immediately captivates the spectator by showing Ismaël’s exciting spy-film-within-a-film first, with all the lyricism and mystery of that genre. Crossfades, slow-motion and orchestra music all burst out of the screen with effervescence, but also a slight dose of humour: this movie, although inspired by Ismael’s mysterious brother Ivan, isn’t all there is to see.
Soon enough, a tender melancholy replaces this excitement when Desplechin swiftly shifts to the bigger picture: Ismaël writes of adventure and secrets, but he himself is sorrowful at his core. Despite the years and his new love, he shares the grief of his father-in-law Bloom, as the woman they both love, Carlotta, and who left them 20 years ago, still haunts their dreams. Desplechin’s romanticism, however, isn’t blind. Ismaël has tried to move on from his past, and has mostly succeeded: his wife Sylvia has helped him by “snatching away [his] mask, and made of [him] a prince,” as she likes to say. The director is careful to give each character some time to explore –since explaining would be too difficult- how they arrived here and there. Ismaël has a complicated and painful past, and Sylvia has her own, shown through sweet flashbacks of their first dates, full of questions and earnest answers. As played with astonishing clarity and delicacy by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the vulnerability buried under her confident and independent demeanour make of Sylvia a complete person, where lesser directors may have been satisfied with just a stereotype of the devoted and sensitive wife.
Yet the unexpected return of Ismaël’s ghost Carlotta comes to disturb the happiness of the couple, and forces them both to reevaluate their lives. The question that Carlotta brings is in fact quit simple: did Ismaël lead his life based on Carlotta’s absence, and therefore on her constant presence in his mind? Did he somehow choose Sylvia because of Carlotta? Are all the films he’s made since her disappearance responses to something or someone that wasn’t even there,? Desplechin’s usual interrogations about our inability to live without wondering what could have been, or how our decisions really aren’t our decisions at all, find in Ismael’s Ghosts a convoluted and staggering expression.
As Carlotta, Marion Cotillard often leans too heavily towards the whimsical, making her already-soulful lines feel slightly ludicrous and out of place. But her very unreality is what makes her a great catalyst for the interrogations that torture Ismaël and Sylvia. With her dramatic arrival and behaviour, she makes their dilemmas clear and urgent, rather than vague and forgettable. Her presence in the flesh, eccentric and surreal, rather than as a ghost, forces change. In that sense, she too can be seen as Desplechin’s alter ego: biting more than he can chew, he strives to exploit all the angles of his story to the extreme and to fully express all the possible directions in which his characters consider going from this crisis. Rather than self-indulgence, his appetite feels rather like a self-challenge and makes even his least successful decisions endearing. And although his enthusiasm may sometimes backfire and make his thoughtful explorations frustratingly baffling, this messiness transcribes well the confusion of Ismaël’s meeting with a turning point in his life, where his past and his present finally meet.
The unusual shortness of the film –and Desplechin’s declaration at the Cannes press conference that a 20-minute-longer version of the film, which he prefers, does exist- may explain why the denouement feels slightly rushed and why loose ends remain in the spy film. Nevertheless, there is some emotional truth to the speed with which Ismaël and Sylvia recover from their meeting with Carlotta. Looking at their lives and with the mystery of Carlotta behind them, they seem to realise, as characters tend to do in Desplechin films, that the solution to their pain is to simply accept it. The uncertainty through which they have struggled to exist, however torturous, is what has lead them to who and where they are now. Even though Carlotta was just a void for 20 years, and even though one wishes that an absence could not have the same impact as a presence –at some point, Sylvia admits that she wishes she could have the effect that Carlotta has on Ismaël- this void is what has made Ismaël who he is, and it is this man that Sylvia loves. Playful, convoluted yet ultimately arguing for simple compassion, Ismael’s Ghosts is an enthralling and often puzzling portrait of its maker’s relentless fascination with his own tortured mind and the strange and always surprising simplicity of life.■
Ismael’s Ghosts / Les fantômes d’Ismaël│ Director: Arnaud Desplechin│ Screenplay: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr, Léa Mysius│ Camera: Irina Lubtchansky│ Editing: Laurence Briaud│ Music: Grégoire Hetzel│ Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg│ Producer: Oury Milshtein│ Production Company: A Magnolia Pictures / Le Pacte│Country: France│ Year: 2017│ Running Time: 114 min.│ International Sales: Wild Bunch │ Festival: Cannes IFF 2017│