A year after his rapturously-received My Golden Days (Trois Souvenirs de ma Jeunesse), which premiered in the festival sidebar Director’s Fortnight, French auteur Arnaud Desplechin opened the 70th Cannes Festival with Ismael’s Ghosts (Les Fantômes d’Ismaël,) which screened out-of-competition at last night’s star-studded gala. Starring Mathieu Amalric, the director’s constant collaborator, alter ego and muse, joined by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard, Ismael’s Ghosts is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: a sprawling yet intimate film that tries, and occasionally succeeds, in being a pointed study of grief, an espionage caper, a love story, and, yes, a ghost story. The main protagonist, Ismaël Vuillard, shares a name – but little else – with Amalric’s character in Desplechin’s 2004 masterpiece Kings and Queen, a role that won Amalric a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for best actor.
In that film, Ismaël was an unstable musician suffering a series of nervous breakdowns; thirteen years later, he’s a famously difficult-to-work-with filmmaker whose new project revolves around his long-lost brother, who may or may not have been a spy (played, in the film-within-the-film, with nervous intensity by Louis Garrell – also at the Cannes as Jean-Luc Godard in Michel Hazanavicius’ much-anticipated Le Redoubtable). The brother/spy in Ismaël’s script is called Ivan Daedalus – note the name – and he is the first of several phantoms we encounter over the course of the film. Just as we’re getting settled into the John Le Carré-style plot, we’re jerked back to Ismäel’s personal life: his current relationship with a middle-aged astrophysicist, Sylvia (Gainsbourg); and his wife, Carlotta, who checked out 20 years earlier – not only from their marriage but, to all appearances, from planet Earth.
Then one day she falls from the sky and washes up on the beach where Ismaël and Sylvia are vacationing. The stage is set for a roulette game of grievances, recriminations and revelations. Desplechin’s circular script handles the frequent turns of the dial with deft intelligence. The director can always be counted on for injections of emotionalism and melodrama. Here, the quirky narrative frame allows him to get away with far more than would otherwise be tolerable. Ivan’s spy assignments take him to Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and Deplechin relishes in the generic clichés of Cold War thrillers. We get secret meetings in a maximum-security desert prison, a gruesome assassination with an exploding cell phone, a hard-drinking, Jackson Pollack-loving Russian agent, and an impossibly noble woman (Alba Rohrwacher) willing to put everything on the line for love.
There’s much to admire, as well, in the love/ghost story at the film’s core, most of all Cotillard’s enigmatic, seductive revenant and Gainsbourg – in a surprisingly unglamorous role – giving a nuanced and pained performance as a woman terrified of losing the man she loves. For once, Amalric is asked to step out of his charmingly neurotic skin and excavate Ismael’s ravaged inner landscape. He doesn’t quite succeed; his frequent outbursts have a rather monotonous note of outrage.
Despite the elaborate espionage set-up, this is, in many ways, a typical Desplechin film, where epic ambition crouches in a chamber drama. The director is up to many of his usual tricks, with monologues for Cotillard and Gainsbourg addressing the camera directly, and a jerky, jittery mise-en-scène that adds to the sense of Amalric’s domestic chaos. And while less of an ensemble piece than Kings and Queen or A Christmas Tale (2008), the film is full of memorable cameos, including Desplechin mainstay Hippolye Girardot as an exasperated producer whom Ismaël shoots in the arm. Desplechin also indulges in some surprising whimsy. There’s a drunken night train to Roubaix complete with surreal back projections that seems inspired by Guy Maddin (as a side note, Amalric acted in Maddin’s most recent film, The Forbidden Room).
Sometimes the Hollywood touches permitted by the spy plot are laid on too thick, such as the intensely dramatic score by Grégoire Hetzel and a preposterously sweaty sex scene for Amalric and Cotillard. There’s no shortage of emotional suffering in Ismael’s Ghosts. Not since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf have actors of both sexes knocked back this much whiskey over the course of two hours. Everyone in Ismael’s Ghosts expounds, with regret and world-weariness, about how old they are. Maybe Despechin, 56, is having intimations of mortality; but his highly energetic actors certainly don’t seem to be, with the exception of 81-year-old Laszlo Szabó, whose performance as Cotillard’s grief-stricken father, a filmmaker slyly referred to as “Bloom” (other one for the Joyceans) who, more than Almaric’s, anchors the film’s emotional turbulence.