The opening-night film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Ismael’s Ghosts gives us a more unhinged Arnaud Desplechin than we’ve had in a while. As in later Alain Resnais or Raúl Ruiz films, it simultaneously collapses and expands a director’s body of work, like an uncontainable popup book. It borrows character names and identifiers liberally from Desplechin’s filmography, but plays fast and loose with the inter-film narrative continuity. It’s worlds away from 2013’s formally and dramatically disciplined Jimmy P., and it builds on 2015’s My Golden Days, which positioned itself as a prequel to 1996’s great My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument.
However, instead of trying to fill out the space of any one particular genre (in the case of My Golden Days, it was the coming-of-age film), Ismael’s Ghosts is a lucid, free-form sprawl of stories nested within stories; characters whose identities are so tenuous that they may be fictions in the diegetic world of the film, or ghosts; and plot digressions that drastically change the overall tone at any given moment. The film will win Desplechin no new fans, as the parade of nervous breakdowns, intimate hospital confessions, espionage-thriller boilerplate, and interfamilial bickering confirms that it isn’t for the uninitiated. This is a catalogue of ideas from Desplechin’s other films—especially Kings and Queen and La Sentinelle—as (re)considered from the perspective of Desplechin surrogate Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a neurotic, effusive-to-a-fault film director in the throes of a crisis.
There are apparently two versions of Ismael’s Ghosts: the one playing at Cannes being the “sentimental” cut preferred by its French distributor, and the other a more “intellectual” take on the material that’s 20 minutes longer. In this form, much of the plot centers on a love triangle between Ismael, his astrophysicist romantic partner, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and his former lover, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who’s been presumed dead for many years. There’s also a secondary plot, eventually revealed to be the narrative of a film Ismael is directing, involving a young diplomat, Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), who’s hunting down Russian spies in Tajikistan.
Like Desplechin himself, Ismael is from the commune of Roubaix, in Northern France, making the autobiographical ambitions of Ismael’s Ghosts more obvious than they’ve been in the director’s other films. The reason why that ambition resonates, both despite and because of the fairly helter-skelter plot, is that Ismael’s reckoning with his past is tied, movingly, to Desplechin’s anxiety-ridden exploration of his filmography, and the unresolved nature of those ambitions feels true to the filmmaker’s creative process.
When, in one sequence, French actor Hippolyte Girardot shows up, playing Ismael’s put-upon film producer and antagonizing the eccentric director about the state of his unfinished latest effort, the provocation triggers a torrent of half-cocked story directions and aesthetic ideas from Ismael. An errant gunshot abruptly ends the reverie, and represents the danger of an over-enthusiastic mind. Desplechin knows that he’s pushing the limits of engagement throughout Ismael’s Ghosts, even for his faithful, but that’s also the same harried space that the best of his work has occupied.
As a result, the film can feel underdeveloped (Cotillard, for example, is able to do Desplechinian melodrama, but the actress seems less capable of exuding the intelligence that’s the hallmark of the director’s female characters), and it isn’t as consistently exhilarating as My Sex Life or Kings and Queen. But it’s just about the perfect Cannes opener: looking back in celebration and with reverence, and rich with the possibility of what’s to come.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.