As in the later films of Alain Resnais and Raúl Ruiz (especially You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and Night Across the Street), Ismael’s Ghosts finds French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin simultaneously collapsing and expanding his body of work, reflexively revealing its many layers, like a pop-up book. Desplechin liberally borrows character names and plot points from many of his previous films, playing fast and loose with the narrative connections that exist between many of them, resulting in a nesting-doll narrative that’s far removed from 2013’s formally and dramatically disciplined Jimmy P. Desplechin builds instead from 2015’s My Golden Days, which positioned itself as a loose prequel to 1996’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument.
Ismael’s Ghosts is also about the neurosis of romance—or, the romance of neurosis—and features Mathieu Amalric as its Desplechin surrogate. But the source of that neurosis here is this man’s awareness of his proximity to death—not the imminence of his death, but rather its inevitability. Which is to say that this is something akin to Desplechin’s midlife-crisis movie, and it takes his self-referentiality to new extremes, filtering his familiar themes and archetypes through the manic, sleep-deprived mind of Ismael Vuillard (Amalric), an effusive-to-a-fault film director. Ismael, like Desplechin, is from the Northern French commune of Roubaix, which makes the autobiographical ambitions here seem even more explicit than usual. The reason why those ambitions resonate, though, has a great deal to do with the way the film’s helter-skelter plot relates Ismael’s precarious relationship to his past to Desplechin’s own anxiety-ridden consideration of his filmography.
Immediately complicating this struggling-artist narrative is an indulgence in a mysterious digression related to the French diplomat Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), who’s stationed in Tajikistan and may be a Russian spy. This “Ivan” isn’t necessarily real, but a character in Ismael’s latest film, based on Ismael’s estranged and enigmatic brother of the same name. Ismael’s Ghosts opens with this film within a film, and as we eavesdrop on hushed conversations between besuited diplomats about a seemingly vanished super agent—and about whose past little is known—we’re informally introduced to Ivan.
For a while, the audience doesn’t know much more than this about the character, as Desplechin suddenly jerks us out of this narrative and into one centered on the creatively blocked Ismael, hopelessly poring over an unfinished screenplay and blasting rap music in his apartment. He gets a call from his elderly father-in-law, Henri Bloom (László Szabó), who’s awoken from a nightmare about his daughter, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard)—Ismael’s wife, who disappeared at the age of 20, and has long since been declared dead. When Ismael arrives at Henri’s apartment, he finds the old man projecting images of a young Carlotta on one of his walls, obsessing over details of his daughter and her marriage to Ismael. (Henri remembers her as an innocent, leaving Ismael to correct the man’s faulty memory—to remind him that Carlotta had numerous affairs before she went missing.)
After many painful years of waiting, Ismael has made some semblance of peace with his wife’s disappearance, and finally moved on to a relationship with astrophysicist Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But his encounter with Bloom serves as an important reminder of the havoc caused by Carlotta’s absence—such that when she suddenly reappears and wants back into his life, Ismael emotionally short-circuits, becoming unable to decide between the two women in his life and jeopardizing his relationship with Sylvia, and causing him to double down on his stubborn refusal to complete his film.
Ismael’s Ghosts reckons with the awesome presence of absence, with the paradox of an emptiness’s formidable expanse. Ismael’s existential panic brings on an endless barrage of incidents: oversized emotional outbursts, intricately explicated backstories, and narrative digressions (which reference 2005’s swooning melodrama Kings and Queen and 1992’s espionage thriller La Sentinelle). What’s ultimately so moving about this film is that the more over-stuffed its various narrative threads become, the greater the absences in each character’s life are felt—whether it’s the absence of a brother, a daughter, a wife, a lover, or even the absence represented by an unfinished film.
This is also why the director’s cut of Ismael’s Ghosts, which is 20 minutes longer than the version that premiered at Cannes in May and includes some structural changes, feels more substantial and immersive than the original cut. Scenes that have been restored (including some extra time at a beach house with Ismael, Sylvia, and the intruding Carlotta, as well as a strange diversion involving Ismael’s relationship to his real brother) tend to deepen our engagement with these characters’ turbulent emotional experiences—and by extension, our connection to the film’s commitment to reframing defiant inhibition as a kind of tragic form of compensation.
Desplechin’s formal technique works in the opposite register of the film’s narrative; while he indulges some of his familiar flourishes (iris shots, melodramatic soundtrack cues, fourth wall-breaking monologues), his style here is more subdued, focused even, than usual. The filmmaker clearly wants to home in on the intimacy of the relationships in Ismael’s Ghosts, favoring tight frames of his couples’ faces and stripping his mise-en-scène of extraneous visual information; he sets long sequences in areas of seclusion, like the aforementioned beach house and an eerily empty café. The sparseness of the staging, and the recurring presence of curtains in the frame, emphasize Desplechin’s self-aware sense of his film’s theatricality, the view that his characters extraordinary displays of romanticism are essentially performative, an exaggerated externalization of an interior emotional self.
In this sense, Ismael’s Ghosts is one of Desplechin’s most emphatic expressions of his personal, ever-expanding artistic vision. Far from the slight, under-developed diversion many wrote it off as after its world premiere at Cannes, the film reveals itself—especially in its intended, lengthier cut—as an unsparing self-assessment, by turns celebratory, deeply melancholic, and funny. (One especially noteworthy scene, in which a gun-wagging Ismael, during a drug-addled creative reverie, accidentally shoots his producer in the arm, suggests the danger of unchecked inspirations.) The tonal inconsistencies in Ismael’s Ghosts can be a bit whiplash-inducing, but as with Desplechin’s best films, the combination of broadly employed excess and intricate detail makes for a cinema that feels invigoratingly full.