The newest feature from celebrated French auteur Arnaud Desplechin, Ismael’s Ghosts, is a cryptic, ethereal, and moving portrait of loss, deceit, love, and the artistic process. Co-written by frequent collaborator Julie Peyr and Léa Mysius (writer/director of Ava, one of 2017’s great debuts), as well as featuring the phenomenal quartet of Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Louis Garrel.
Ismael’s Ghosts is a film that evokes the frustration of and dangers in artistic inspiration through various dualisms, which makes it no surprise that it’s also a film that strongly evokes Hitchock’s Veritgo. On top of the Hitchcockian tropes are overt references to James Joyce, primarily the protagonist of Ulysses and the writer’s alter ego – who perhaps serves as Amalric’s own foil here – Dedalus. Even more so, the film concerns the return of Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) – cough, Vertigo, cough – the former wife of Amalric’s filmmaker protagonist, Ismaël Vuillard, who was presumed been dead for twenty-one years. At the same time, Vuillard has since been seeing Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), so the reunion of former partners is problematic to say the least.
That’s a lot to take in. If anything, Ismael’s Ghosts is a daring and expansive film that refuses to ever settle for any semblance of a conventional narrative. Also at play is the framed narrative of Vuillard’s diplomat brother, Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), who is either dead, missing, or simply out of reach. It’s a flurry of information and shifts in tone and narrative. However, under the direction of Desplechin it works for the most part. Given the production woes regarding the release of the film – the distributors demanding a two-hour cut preventing Desplechin from releasing his fully realized vision with an additional twenty-minutes until this year’s New York Film Festival – it’s a bit hard to judge the film as is. However, the primary issues of Ismael’s Ghosts aren’t length or a convoluted script, but rather a need for further context and a deepening of film’s many themes and characters. Thus, the notion of a lengthier Director’s Cut seems almost integral to the film achieving the promise it so commandingly displays.
As is, Ismael’s Ghosts is a bit of a mess, but one that through the familiar tropes of Desplechin: artistic families in conflict, fourth-wall breaks, and a sharp, emotionally deft screenplay, manages a great deal of success. The lead performances, especially by Cotillard and Gainsbourg, are two of the year’s best. Amalric delves into campiness here and there, but for a character that feels like a mix between Mastroanni in 8 1/2, Cruise in Vanilla Sky, and various other cinematic mad men, it makes sense. The inner struggle of Vuillard is one that is realized the further along the film goes. The “ghosts” in question ranging from the presumed death of Carlotta, to the hidden truths that haunt Vuillard as his ignorance threatens his career, artistic agenda, and very identity.
In this sense, Ismael’s Ghosts feels akin to Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York as both films concern an artistic deeply in conflict with himself and his supposed artistic manifesto, as he moves from partner to partner, place to place, in the hopes of obtaining a happiness that will no doubt elude him for the rest of his life. Perhaps best expressed in the role that reflection and perspective play in the film, which are an obsession of Vuillard’s. Which is to say, Ismael’s Ghosts is a film in which characters are built up by other characters, meaning their perspective, only to be damned by themselves, being their reflection.
Again, not the complete vision of Desplechin, but still an intriguing and resonant work that deals with success and loss and the ways in which the two engage with each other. Meaning that, even though Vuillard is a renowned filmmaker, it means little when compared to the struggles he faces in his personal life. Even though Carlotta may have all the love in the world, it doesn’t serve as a warmth as she lives in the cold shadow of her father as well as her husband. These are desperate characters in intimate situations, providing the dramatic framework for an atmospheric send-up of truth and fiction. In finality, regardless of its disinterest in narrative cohesion, Ismael's Ghosts is an often times hilarious, thrilling, and heartbreaking portrait of the film and art world.