If last year saw Olivier Assayas doing his version of a ghost story with Personal Shopper, this year, it apparently fell upon French contemporary Arnaud Desplechin to do the same with Ismael’s Ghosts, the (uncharacteristically) interesting opening film of the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Anyone expecting Desplechin to go full genre, though, will likely be disappointed, which is to say that Ismael’s Ghosts isn't much of a ghost story—or at least not any more of a ghost story than any of his other films, from his debut feature, the beautifully titled La vie des morts (1991), to his most recent, the coming-of-age drama My Golden Days (2015). What is a ghost story, after all, except the present being haunted by the past?
Drawing from a vast array of references, Desplechin weaves together stories and fragments of stories that shift to and fro with wild abandon. Here, Ismaël Vuillard (a recurring character name in Desplechin’s filmography), an aging filmmaker played by longtime collaborator Mathieu Amalric, provides the ostensible center. An espionage thriller—which turns out to be a film-within-a-film—kicks things off, following Louis Garrel as Ivan Dedalus as a fictionalized version of Ismael’s own brother, a diplomat (or possibly spy). A man with “an unlikely face” and “an atypical trajectory,” he goes through the world, lost and inward, Garrel’s features and close-cropped hair giving the character an unreadable exterior. But the main thread emerges when Ismael’s former wife Carlotta Bloom (Marion Cotillard), who had been missing for over 21 years (and declared legally dead), unexpectedly returns to find he and his lover of two years, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) vacationing in a beach-house.
Desplechin pulls together the various strands (which shift in perspective as the film progresses) in his characteristic style—more symphonic and orchestral than strictly linear, shards and fragments of story often cutting multiple ways all at once. For a while, it’s not even clear whether Carlotta is actually alive or is simply an apparition that’s come to ruin the couple’s happiness. Always, the camera is restless and roving, attempting to capture more than the frame (and the film itself) seems to be able to handle. And that’s always been Desplechin’s unique strength: that ability to evoke entire worlds bursting forth from the screen, stories enriched, not flattened by their intellectual (hyper-)awareness. A composition of Cotillard and Gainsbourg at the beach-house brings to mind shades of Persona; dashes of Vertigo emerge in a portrait of a young Carlotta; even the globe-trotting Ivan Dedalus strand, though often jarring in tone, has a beguiling mythological edge, a sense of playful reinvention. (“I was so curious about the world,” says Ivan Dedalus of the motivation for his work.) For about an hour, Desplechin manages to sustain an eclectic, electric mix of these contrapuntal elements, which move wildly even within the space of a scene or line. (An intense confrontation that sees Sylvia tell Ismael of Carlotta’s return climaxes with Cotillard comically shrugging in response to Ismael’s disbelief.) But unlike the best of Desplechin’s work, the film never quite achieves the gestalt it’s going for. The rich, digressive stories don’t complement each other as well as they should and the slippery formal sense shuts out, rather than enhances the film’s emotional logic. Ismael’s Ghosts is brash and confident, but also flawed and deeply frustrating; its sense of humor, especially, often lands with a merciless thud. (Recall the ill-considered convenience store robbery scene in 2004's Kings and Queen and one gets a sense of the strained wackiness here.) But there’s also a richness of imagination that’s impossible to dismiss, Desplechin’s constant formal reinvention mirroring his characters’ own struggles to make sense of their pasts, their way of coping with the present by continually creating themselves anew.
When Ivan Dedalus is asked how many lives he has lived, he replies, without even thinking: “Like everyone… two or three.” That statement goes a long way to unlocking the larger vision of Desplechin’s film, as does a later reference to Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” which a character claims is actually “figurative” within the greater, abstract expressionist picture. Conflating a fictional and artistic statement is often trite and often dangerous, though; but Ismael’s Ghosts is nothing if not a film of wild, vibrant, almost garish strokes, one that situates its “action” within an eternal present. (A burst of blood on a white canvas in that very scene is telling.) It’s the larger picture that disappoints. Nonetheless, it’s a film in constant motion, forceful, imaginative and, above all, present. The present may be shit, as Ismael Vuillard claims, but it’s all we have.