It’s rarely a bad idea to begin a discussion of a film – particularly a French film, particularly an Arnaud Desplechin film – with a word from Godard. Writing in 1950, he posted, “At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought.” You can see what he means by this by watching the films he’d making beginning ten years later. They, as individual works, were scattered between love and crime and politics and movies and whatever else happened to cross his mind. The beauty of his filmmaking was in letting you think alongside him. He could take you through his process.
With My Golden Days, Desplechin seemed to be after something similar; a coming-of-age-story-slash-espionage-yarn is not the most common genre, but he tangled with it rather compellingly. His latest, Ismael’s Ghosts, is even more ambitious, and, at least on first view, less successful. It is more beguiling, more captivating when it latches onto something and so much more dreadful when it loses sight of it. It’s about a man who struggles with the same, holding onto what’s most important in his life, scrambling to return to it, and ultimately f(l)ailing. Desplechin mirrors that fractured mindset with a fractured story. It’s admirable, even noble, or, more damning, interesting.
Mathieu Amalric, ever an avatar for his directors and especially one for Desplechin, plays a filmmaker whose contented life with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is interrupted by the return of his presumed-dead wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard, ever assigned semi-mystic characters who beguile rutted men of middle age). The segment of film dedicated to the three of them at the beach, falling in and out of love and bed with one another, is as good as anything I’ve seen this year. As with Bergman’s beach houses, they feel removed from time and space. Any actions they take can haunt only their memories. Any time that passes has no bearing on the outside world. They can drift through each other and themselves. Amalric plays sweaty desperation extremely well, and seems to be at nerve’s end even when he’s sitting perfectly still. For that matter, there’s a reason Cotillard keeps getting these sort of roles – she can stare directly through a person, looking right at them yet never making eye contact. She can seem very far away from everything. And there’s a scene of her dancing to Bob Dylan that is simply divine.
Like Ismael, Sylvia, and Carlotta, Desplechin loses everything special that he had there at the beach. He’s soon back into espionage, back into a thousand bits of nonsense that don’t relate emotionally, tonally, aesthetically, you name it. Major characters are dropped entirely. He has stated that this sort of broken-glass narrative approach is entirely purposeful, and I agree. Nothing about the film seems accidental. But that doesn’t make it successful. A film losing its sense of purpose does not necessarily translate to the emotional experience a character is having. And, look, I love scattershot films. Besides the aforementioned Godard, Rebecca Zlotowski’s frankly-quite-insane Planetarium managed to hit this mark extremely successfully, piling on complications in its characters’ lives to mirror their loss of control and distraction from what’s most important.
The same central confidence just isn’t there in Ismael’s Ghosts; at least, right now, I can’t see it. I spent the bulk of the film wavering wildly between total conviction of its genius, trying to convince myself that some detour was secretly genius, and despairing that my reasons started to feel like excuses. This is clearly the work of an imaginative, thoughtful, adventurous filmmaker, and we desperately need more directors willing to go this far out. But I often think of a director as a guide, someone who not only shows but shows how to see. Ismael’s Ghosts, as crazy as it is, feels not like an expression of one person, or even of one person with disparate ambitions, but of several people each vying for attention. When Godard said “At the cinema…we are thought”, that implies a certain continuity. It’s a “train of thought”, the idea that one subject can spark something seemingly unrelated. Desplechin doesn’t give us that spark, that burst of instinct that drags us from place to place and topic to topic. He only gives us the results. We’re not lead to think with him, or about him, or about his film, but through a loose collection of ideas that don’t even talk to each other. What thought?