Directorial indulgence can make or break a film. Allowing an auteur's singular vision to be the driving force behind a film is one of cinema's greatest gambles, and it can either result in unrestrained brilliance, unhampered by competing perspectives, or it can be the harbinger of artistic tragedy, wherein an auteur's ego so consumes a work that it doesn't appear to be made for anyone but the auteur themselves. Sometimes that can be fascinating to dissect and examine, but Arnaud Desplechin's Ismael's Ghosts is neither worthy of dissection nor requiring much scrutiny. Alas, Ismael's Ghosts is a film defined by its excesses, and the most frustrating thing about it is that the leaner, better film is staring you in the face the entire time.
The titular Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) is a filmmaker – take a wild guess who this character is based on – who struggles with the disappearance and presumed death of his young wife Carlotta twenty-one years ago. He has been in a steady relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) for two years, and while he works on the screenplay for a new film, the couple decides to make a retreat to the beach. However, this getaway is interrupted when Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) shows up and claims to have been willfully missing rather than dead for these two decades, forcing Ismael to confront a ghost from his past just as he was finally learning to move on from the trauma of his loss.
The first hour or so of Ismael's Ghosts is actually somewhat intriguingly plotted, or rather it leans so heavily on the star presence of Marion Cotillard that it's easy to ignore the plotlessness. Cotillard projects an otherworldly energy that gives the impression of a ghost story, delivering cryptic lines about how she hasn't really been living in her absence and how she wishes the perpetually self-destructive Ismael would join her in resuming their youthful romance. She's hypnotic, with the frenzied reaction of Amalric's Ismael and the cold jealousy of Gainsbourg's Sylvia acting as appropriate garnishes to a centrally haunting performance. This ethereal exploration of grief and loss also worms its way into the screenplay Ismael is writing, which explores the imagined adventures of Ismael's estranged brother and is shown as pieces of a film within this one.
But it is here that Desplechin quite literally loses the plot, particularly in the film's second half. The film-within-a-film is rather bluntly a fantastically imagined life for a brother we at first know nothing about, and while thematically tangential after a long road traveled to make a small point, it does little to address the inciting conflict of Carlotta's sudden reemergence. But Ismael's Ghosts doesn't stop there, as we are led down a path through Ismael's relationship with Carlotta's eccentric father (Louis Garrel), an affair with one of his film's actresses (Alba Rohrwacher), and the abandonment of the film mid-production so that Ismael may have a mental breakdown and rebuild the plot from the ground up. This is all presented with complete disregard for character arcs, act structure, or even coherent metaphor, for even Carlotta becomes less interesting as the film firmly establishes whether or not she is, in fact, an actual ghost. The production becomes a bloated homunculus of pastiches and subplots that bears a shambling resemblance to a character study but doesn't have the legs to carry us to any meaningful conclusions about Ismael or, by approximate extension, Desplechin.
The version of Ismael's Ghosts in theaters right now is actually Desplechin's director's cut, with an additional twenty minutes added since the film's initial premiere at Cannes, so the original cut might prove to be the sleeker, more focused version one craves once the credits roll. And yet, when I think back on the film's second hour, I can pick out almost nothing I like about it, as the narrative unravels itself so completely that the film's blunt denouement can't feel like anything less than relief at the experience's ending. And that's a shame, because Cotillard is so gripping as the vessel for a character study by way of ghost story that it makes you bemoan the film that could have been. That's what's so frustrating about Ismael's Ghosts; you can see the fine art buried underneath the piles of bullshit, but the shit is so messy that the artistry is made worthless in the burial.