It’s not just that the woman (Marion Cotillard) goes missing for 21 years — registered as “absent” yet presumed dead — only to return and subsequently announce to a social services worker, “My name is Carlotta Bloom, and I’m back.” It’s not just that she’s named Carlotta, with all the “Vertigo” signaling that entails (there’s even a portrait of Carlotta for those keeping track).
And it’s not just that she’s maddeningly opaque and slow to explain herself to her husband Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) and his partner Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), or even to reveal herself as still alive to her long-grieving father Henri (Godard regular László Szabó). It’s that in spite of the disruption of her return, she might not be the most pressing bit of information complicating Ismael’s life. She might not even be real.
Ambiguous, criss-crossing identity, both personal and cinematic, is the fragile underpinning of the impeccably messy “Ismael’s Ghosts,” French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin’s latest — this U.S. release re-edited and extended by 20 minutes after a shorter version’s premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival — and by the time Cotillard performs a strange, clunky, and thematically appropriate dance to Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” it becomes clear that nothing is clear except Desplechin’s commitment to a mad pastiche of his own design.
Carlotta, for all the chaos she brings, is only one element of the storm brewing in “Ghosts,” and Cotillard’s arrested-development performance allows her to recede when Desplechin decides to make complicated narrative moves. Coinciding with Carlotta’s apparent resurrection, Ismael, a filmmaker himself, becomes creatively blocked and disturbed by nightmares, recalling Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”. He’s working on a Cold War espionage movie, one starring Louis Garrel as an oddball spy with a habit of taking naps to avoid his own chronic bad dreams, and production has ground to a halt.
Garrell’s character, Ivan Dedalus, will ring a narrative bell with attentive audiences: the character of Paul Dedalus in Desplechin’s 2015 film “My Golden Years” was also suspected of being a Russian spy, and the Dedalus and Vuillard family names wind their way through many of the director’s projects, with Amalric often playing recurring roles, including that of Ismael in 2004’s “Kings & Queen.”
In the latter half of “Ghosts,” Garrel shows up as someone else, Ismael’s estranged brother, who is also named Ivan. When informed of Ismael’s disappearance from his own set and Ivan’s involuntary role in the film’s plot, the weary sibling winks at Desplechin’s tendency to saddle his fictional Dedalus and Vuillard clans with fresh trouble every time the cameras roll and remarks, “Is my brother ridiculing our family again? Whose turn is it this time?”
Hallucinations take over Ismael’s waking life; characters leave and then return; an adopted son mentioned by Ismael never materializes; religious metaphors bounce around and then settle in, undeveloped; theories of psychoanalysis ground conversations about the nature of reality and mirrored selves; the advent of visual perspective in classical painting gets thrown in there, too. Why not?
Amalric, Desplechin’s go-to central figure in film after film, is instantly comfortable as his disheveled-with-cigarettes avatar, a sympathetic near-parody of midlife failure, the easily spotted, self-centered artist whose uncertainty might destroy him. We root for him because not to probably means certain collapse.
Not that Desplechin is especially tender with his protagonist or all that concerned with his well-being. If having a possibly literal ghost arrive to ruin Ismael’s life weren’t enough, Desplechin’s physical practice of filmmaking — dissolves within scenes, characters breaking the fourth wall, expanding and contracting iris shots that frame action in black voids, black-and-white rear projections, close-ups that linger longer than comfort would recommend — works hard toward compounding Ismael’s and the audience’s sense of disorientation. This is filmmaking that demands to be noticed, if not always trusted.
And in the end, there might not be any real ghosts. Carlotta may just have a conveniently evocative name and poor timing. Ismael’s breakdown may just be too much booze, insomnia, and guilt. Reality may just be what it appears to be.
But more likely it’s true that Desplechin is here to remind us that all readings are subjective, that stories end differently depending on who’s doing the telling and who’s doing the listening. At one point, Ismael is accused of directing films in a way that puts him “all over the screen,” in spite of his protestations that his “job is to disappear,” to be an objective observer.
Of course, there’s no such thing. Desplechin delivers a raft of unreliable narrators, both real and imagined, to tangle you up in knots, and in doing so cops to it himself.