By far the most important ingredient for any artist is life experience: When storytellers try to tackle anything more realistic than a by-the-numbers superhero movie, it helps to have had your heart broken, perhaps to have lost a parent, to have been forced to choose between two lovers, to have fathered a child. With “Ismael’s Ghosts,” Arnaud Desplechin attempts to cram all this and more into a single film. A self-absorbed, nightmare-besotted director (played by Mathieu Amalric) is literally haunted by his past when his wife, presumed dead for 21 years, unexpectedly reappears midway through his latest production — but even though much seems to be informed by autobiography (or at least narcissism), precious little rings true.
As phony emotional showcases go, this one’s full of unintentionally comedic melodrama, rivaling cult favorite “The Room” at times as Amalric (reprising his role as the chronicallly unstable Ismael Vuillard from “Kings and Queen”) overturns furniture and heatedly berates Marion Cotillard (as the wife who walked out on him) before making sweaty love to her. Meanwhile, in another storyline, Ismael courts, then abandons, then ultimately impregnates his new flame, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), described as an astrophysicist with her “head in the stars,” all while struggling to make what comes across as world’s least interesting spy movie.
How much of this cinematic pseudo-selfie is informed by life experience? Hard to say — and even harder to swallow. If “Ismael’s Ghosts” were a meal, it would be a massive slab of off-tasting meat alternative, wrapped in fake bacon, cooked in margarine, then covered in dairy-free imitation cheese.
Even Desplechin, whose supreme indulgence this project was in the first place, has confused matters by preparing two different versions of the film, the 114-minute cut selected to open the Cannes film festival, and another, 20 minutes longer, to be screened at the Cinéma du Panthéon in Paris. Though both are ostensibly “director’s cuts,” it’s a curious choice on Cannes’ part to favor this potentially compromised shorter version, especially after the festival took a stand three years earlier by showing the widely derided director’s cut of “Grace of Monaco” — a movie that at least had the advantage of being coherent.
“Ismael’s Ghosts,” by contrast, is something of a muddle in its current form, but its inclusion makes a different sort of statement, bringing Desplechin back into the fold of “official selection” after his 2015 feature “My Golden Days” was rejected, only to open rival section Director’s Fortnight instead. That movie was so well received by critics (wildly over-praised in this one’s estimation) that some slammed Cannes for not putting it in competition. So now the fest scoops up a lesser film — lesser, but not uninteresting, as Desplechin continues to expand his semi-autobiographical constellation of characters.
Amalric has played Ismael Vuillard before, but the details here are inconsistent (at one point, he acknowledges a photo of the son he’d adopted in 2004’s “Kings and Queen,” although the ghosts of that marriage and Ismael’s subsequent mental breakdown have been scrubbed from his biography). This time around, Ismael is a director making a movie inspired by his brother, a diplomat whom he believes to be a spy. The film opens with and repeatedly returns to scenes from this production, in which a blank-looking Louis Garrel stars as secret agent Ivan Dedalus (who shares a surname with Paul Dedalus, a character Amalric has played in three other Desplechin pictures: “My Golden Days,” “A Christmas Tale” and the sprawling “My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument”).
To make matters even stranger, Cotillard appeared in “My Sex Life” 21 years ago, playing one of Paul Dedalus’ young conquests. Here, she once again bares all, this time as entirely different character: namely, Ismael’s ex-wife Carlotta — no doubt an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s own reincarnation fantasy, “Vertigo.” As in that film, Carlotta seems to have come back from the dead, two decades after disappearing from Ismael’s life. After much anguish (including the potentially terminal diagnosis of an unspecified medical condition), Ismael has managed to spark a tentative new romance with Sylvia, until one day, while smoking/boozing/pill-popping his way through rewrites of his spy-movie script, Carlotta reappears to ruin their lives.
Ismael insists that he’s over her, but clearly isn’t. Sylvia insists that she prefers married men, but clearly doesn’t — or else, why abandon Ismael the moment his wife comes back from the dead? And Desplechin insists on inserting scenes from the fictional Ivan Dedalus story into the midst of things, confusing the film’s already fragmented structure with distracting vignettes from this half-baked movie-within-a-movie (which supplies exotic digressions to Tajikistan, Tel Aviv and Prague).
Without the benefit of having seen the director’s longer 134-minute cut, a charitable reading suggests that Desplechin is determined to challenge the conventional language of cinema, serving up an almost cubist take on the central dynamic — though he himself prefers comparisons to the abstract work of Jackson Pollock! In its own weird way, “Ismael’s Ghosts” has something profound to say about the lingering pain of past relationships and the threat they still pose to the present, but it does so in such a needlessly complicated fashion, we can’t help but be overwhelmed. It wants to be “Vertigo,” “Providence” (the Alain Resnais tale of a delirious late-career writer lapsing between memory and fiction as he plumbs his family tree for inspiration) and half a dozen prismatic self-portraits in which a runaway production threatens to kill its creator (“8½,” “All That Jazz,” “The Last Movie”).
At one point, with the Ivan Dedalus movie still unfinished (but no reason for us to care about its outcome), Ismael’s line producer (Hippolyte Girardot) tracks him down, drunkenly ranting about the idea of artistic “perspective.” The producer threatens to kidnap Ismael and force him to complete the project, at which point Ismael pulls a gun and shoots the poor fellow.
People do things like that in Desplechin movies, which are either over-the-top or particle-board bland (see “Jimmy P.”), but seldom in between. Sure enough, there’s boldness to spare in “Ismael’s Ghosts” as Desplechin operates in cinematic overdrive: The music swoons, the camera sweeps, he cuts/dissolves between angles seemingly at random within a scene. But to what end? And are we really meant to believe that some longer version exists where all this malarkey suddenly makes sense?