Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts considers memory as a cancer, the kind that metastasizes and consumes its host, petrifying them into nothingness. The film finds Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a film director, committed to a new partner in Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). His ex-wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), vanished over two decades prior leaving Ismaël to tend to one of those inner-bruises that just won’t heal. We hear about Carlotta from orbiting characters that speak of her flightiness and eccentricities. Those traits operate in sharp contrast to Sylvia’s logical and shy qualities. She ends up becoming the perfect remedy to Ismaël’s downtrodden disenchantment with waking life, though, as you’d expect, things become especially complicated when Carlotta emerges back into Ismaël’s life.
Akin to Desplechin’s excellent previous film, My Golden Years, there’s a scattershot quality to Ismael’s Ghosts that defies simple classification. There’s a conscious effort to upend narrative expectations by indulging in rapid, frequently inexplicable, detours that derail the film’s plotting. It’s jarring, even a little frustrating, when Desplechin steps away from the potent (though familiar) love triangle that began the film in favor of tangents involving Ismaël’s stalled production. But if that detour suggests anything, it’s that these infatuations buckle under the weight of our creative egos and ambitions. Ambitions, that if remained unchecked, can lead to madness. As Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread reminded audiences late last year, that special kind of relationship is one where you’re willing to slow down a little.