Arnaud Desplechin loves stories – the ones you show on a screen, the ones people regale others with that reveal delusions and dreams, the ones we tell ourselves in order to survive. A French filmmaker who's given us some of the warmest and most eccentric movies to come out of that country (My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument, Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale), he's a director who loves to pile incident upon incident, propelling his characters from one dramatic pivot point to the next in the name of wreaking emotional havoc. He tells humanistic tales that can veer into profound and profoundly odd territory – even a corseted period piece like Esther Kahn (2000) ends up serving its unhinged heroine a meal of broken glass. Cups are guaranteed to runneth over.
Desplechin is also a big fan of meta-feints and parries, which is why his latest movie Ismael's Ghosts starts off as a spy thriller with Louis Garrel, he of the first-rate Picasso mug, being groomed by an intelligence-agency bigwigs to infiltrate some international circle of no-goodniks. Soon, we find out that all of this is happening in the mind, and on the laptop, of one Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a filmmaker in full boho-disheveled work mode. Some 21 years ago, his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) disappeared; neither he nor his father-in-law (László Szabó), also a celebrated director, know what happened or why. Eventually, Ismael meets a new woman, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Life goes on, years pass, bliss returns. Then one day, a woman walks up to Sylvia on the beach. She introduces herself as Carlotta. She's wondering if her husband is home.
There are love triangles and more espionage shenanigans and backstage fretting, sorrow and madness, exploding phones and a sex scene involving two people undressing each other in fragmented close-ups that isn't hot so much as straight-up molten. The title references Moby Dick, somewhat; you'll also find Afrika Bambatta's "Peace, Love, and Having Fun" trading off with Bernard Hermann's score for Marnie on the soundtrack, as well as explicit/implicit shout-outs to Vertigo (Cotillard's character is not called Carlotta for nothing) and Philip Roth and The Interpretation of Dreams. The writer-director has long been a huge hip-hop fan – he had Roxanne Shante cut a track for his previous movie, 2015's My Golden Days – and often adopts a sample-ready style of layering bric-a-brac into his various storylines. But Desplechin is not a pastiche artist so much as a filmmaker who likes giving his characters passionate obsessions and digs getting drunk off their narrative digressions – a condition that becomes contagious when you watch his work.
And my god, does he love actors. His longtime screen avatar Mathieu Amalric, who's also a first-rate filmmaker (track down his there's-no-business-like-show-business romp Tournée if you've never seen it) and a performer that always looks like he's just starting a three-day bender or just finishing one, goes through Ismael's amour fou paces like a champ. Charlotte Gainsbourg gets to put her regal bearing and inherent vulnerability to good use. Szabó, a veteran of Godard's early movies, gets a great scene that involves railing against airline personnel and anti-Semitism; Cotillard gets an even better one involving her dancing to Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe." (The use of the song is both too on the nose and somehow totally perfect.) So often, this preternaturally talented actress is simply asked to be Pretty Mystery Lady when she's recruited for Hollywood movies. Desplechin gives her chance to run the gamut from guilty to breezy here, and it's a gift to Cotillard – and us.
Out of sympathy with its lead character, Ismael's Ghosts eventually goes off the rails around the same time Ismael himself does, constantly toggling between the movie within the movie and his own mental unraveling. As with all of Desplechin's work, you need to embrace the chaos of his story about the past never being done with us and let it work its messy magic on you. And like most of the director's work, the end result – a sort of melodramatic free-for-all shot out of cannon that inspires a sense of cinematic euphoria – is completely worth it.