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. 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.
NOTEBOOK: Ismael’s Ghosts is rich with many tones and stories. Where in the filmmaking process do you balance these elements?
ARNAUD DESPLECHIN: It was in the script. We started this script with an appetite for all these stories which are then compressed. I remember at one point in the film the character Ismael is depicting a Pollock painting and saying that it contains [figurative] images, just compressed. And that’s what we tried—to take bits and pieces of stories and to compress all these stories into one big stream. That was our challenge.
NOTEBOOK: The film has a very unpredictable soundtrack. What inspired these music cues?
DESPLECHIN: For the soundtrack, it’s on the editing table that I’m trying to break what I already prepared and to find new ideas and to create a tempo with the score: some Beethoven, the hip-hop songs and the Bernard Herrmann—which we planned because Mathieu [Amalric] had to learn the Marnie song that he’s playing at the beginning of the film. I love in a film when you have different colors, and I can bring these colors through the music. And also because as you said, there are so many stories, so I didn’t want the audience to become confused. So you need someone to handle you and conduct your through the film and that’s the job of Grégoire Hetzel, the composer. He’s just like the piano player in a silent movie, taking you by the hand and bringing you to the very last scene.
NOTEBOOK: These last two films of yours seem to consciously re-work stories and themes from your previous films.
DESPLECHIN: It’s absolutely unconscious. Positive. It seems to me that you’ll always make one film against the previous one. If I try to remember My Golden Days, I remember the absolute loneliness of Mathieu Amalric’s character, refusing life with the goal of protecting the past, the love that he had for Esther. In this one, instead of protecting the past, the characters have to accept their future. I think that the moral of the film is the last line which is said by Charlotte Gainsbourg: “La vie met arrivé.” Life just happened. Life happened to each one of these characters and they have to accept and embrace it, even if it’s sometimes embarrassing or not exactly what you’re expecting. It’s there and you have to accept it. So I could say that My Golden Days is about melancholia and this one is about appetite.
NOTEBOOK: How do you incorporate the wealth of influences from other art forms into your process?
DESPLECHIN: It’s just part of my life. Painting—I never spoke about painting... But painting is part of my life as a human being. I’m always reading books. So I’m just using what I’m doing in real life. There is no split between what I’m writing and my real life. I’m just using any tool that I can find. We were discussing music. I can use any music that I listen to on the radio. And in the same way, I’m using all these references and trying to mix them and create something new from these references that I worship.
NOTEBOOK: So it’s mostly intuitive—what you have in your life.
DESPLECHIN: Yes, it’s much more intuitive as opposed to any plan.
NOTEBOOK: Irises, fades camerawork: your film is often dizzyingly inventive with form. Where do these styles come from?
DESPLECHIN: I’m trying to do my homework. I love to be on the set. And I love actors. I’m trying to welcome them right so I’m doing my homework. I have a shortlist [of shots], very, very precise—the things that we try to do on the day of shooting. I remember some shots with Marion [Cotillard] and some shots with Louis Garrel, where we tried to improvise. So we do the thing that I planned and then we try to create something that was not planned. So it’s half preparation and half improvisation on the set.
NOTEBOOK: And how much of what you planned and what you improvised ended up in the film?
DESPLECHIN: It depends on the scene. It really depends. I’m very proud of the ending—which I can’t say because it would be a spoiler—but the entire ending with Mathieu and Charlotte [Gainsbourg] was pure improvisation. I just wrote the lines on the set and I said we could put the camera here, et cetera. I remember this shot of Marion Cotillard when she’s beside her father dying and she just has this strange gesture as she says “Father, it’s me.” It’s pure improvisation. Suddenly, I have this idea of that angle because the actor is offering me so much and I’m trying to catch what they are offering to me. So I’m trying to move the camera with the goal of catching what they’re offering to me, to find the best angle to receive it and to transmit it to you.
NOTEBOOK: You’re again working with frequent collaborators like Mathieu Amalric, as well as new cast members like Charlotte Gainsbourg. What are these actors relationships like?
DESPLECHIN: With Mathieu, it’s a deep relationship. It’s not just a relationship between an actor and a director because Mathieu is also a director and I love his films. So it’s a dialogue which is going from one film to another one to another one. I can say that it’s harder with each new film because Mathieu is trying to surprise me and I’m trying to surprise him. But on this one, this film with all these plots, and the character being so wild and sometimes so gentle with the female characters… I thought the very last day of shooting with Mathieu I told him: “I have empty pockets.” I gave everything that I had. I don’t know what more to give. Mathieu and I, we’re showing you all the tricks that we learned together from Ma vie sexuelle, since My Sex Life… and that’s about it.
But the great thing about these two women’s parts was that they were large enough to welcome stars. And at last I could work... Work. I don’t like that word—work. I prefer play. I could play with Charlotte Gainsbourg. And I could play with Marion Cotillard. It was just like a dream. I really worship their art, each one of them.
NOTEBOOK: The film makes surprising use of the world of espionage. Where does your interest in this originate?
DESPLECHIN: I loved the ambiguity of it. I love this character played by Louis Garrel where you just don’t know… Ismael is always focused on himself. You could say that he’s quite selfish. He’s trapped in Roubaix, in his house and inventing stories which are going all over the world. So there was a nice contrast between this man trapped and trying to reinvent this figure of a brother who’s missing, and all these adventures of this brother, who is not a real brother, who is the brother that he dreams to have. I loved the fact that one was traveling all over the world. Is he stupid? Or is he so clever? Is he a spy? Or is he an angel and innocent? You don’t know. You will never know. You will never have the question answered. It’s just about ambiguity. I love the last line of Alba Rohrwacher [who plays the the wife of Garrel’s character] saying “My husband is a spy.” And you know she’s so proud of it. He’s not stupid. He’s a spy. It’s so great. I loved the contrast between the writer being trapped in Roubaix and the brother traveling all over the world.
NOTEBOOK: Given the title, there’s a suggestion of fantasy in Ismael’s Ghosts. Was this planned or does it find its way into your cinema organically?
DESPLECHIN: I’m not sure. I remember this book of Norman Mailer’s called Harlot’s Ghost. It’s a great book. It’s a book of spying, about the CIA—a big thick book that I love. I love the fact that each one of the characters is dealing with their own ghosts. This is what we’re doing, each one of us, the audience or the characters on the screen. For Ismael he’s dealing with the ghost of the women that he lost two decades ago, and he’s dealing with his brother who is missing and not in France any longer. And guilt, and this father-in-law that he loves. He’s dealing with all these ghosts and when he’s not able to deal with these ghosts that’s when he’s escaping to his family house in Roubaix. And I guess that’s what I wanted to say with that title that each one of us has to deal with our ghosts and we have to move forward.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting. When Marion Cotillard first shows up. I wasn’t actually sure whether she was just an apparition or not. Was that your intention with crafting her performance in that way?
DESPLECHIN: Yeah... Is she real? Is she just what Sylvia is afraid of? At one point Mathieu is saying to Charlotte: “Don’t be scared of the ghosts. She’s just a ghost, she disappeared.” And Marion appears on the beach. Is she a ghost? Is she real? But what I love in Marion’s performance – Marion is so real. In real life and on-screen she’s so real, so simple. She’s just there, she’s alive. You thought she was dead and she’s a ghost, but a very friendly ghost. She’s also like a little devil on this island because she wants her husband back. So it’s two things at the same time. And you can’t be angry or pissed at her because she’s so natural and open and smiling. I remember the scene in the staircase when she appears and Mathieu is seeing her. Is he looking at a ghost or a real woman? But she is a real woman, and that’s what’s so surprising.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that you had given your all on this film. What comes next? Are you working on something new?
DESPLECHIN: Oh, never. I can’t say because I’m always waiting for the answer of the audience. I need the answer of the audience to know. The audience is showing to me where I have to go. So I need to have let’s say two or three weeks to listen to that rumor from the audience, this sound of the theaters and this answer from the audience. How did they catch the film? And since this film is so full of light, I guess that the next one will be dark and bitter. And this one is so generous and open... I don’t know, I still don’t know.
This interview was originally filmed at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here.