At the climax of The Muppets Take Manhattan, that redoubtable producer Kermit the Frog realizes at last what his Broadway show has been missing right up to the night of its premiere. It just needs “more frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and whatever!” A similar fervor seems to have gripped Arnaud Desplechin, though in the case of his swollen director’s cut of Ismael’s Ghosts, it proves notably less fruitful. Here are more mistresses and flashbacks and film-within-the-film espionage inanity! Between its unveiling at Cannes in 2017 and its official release on American screens this week, Ismael’s Ghosts has taken on an extra 20 minutes, which will certainly hit the spot for viewers disappointed that the original version found the hero, a French film director unable to complete his own out-of-control film, only taking two lovers.
If the original cut was a couple of Desplechin distinct movies loaded into a woodchipper and then splatted all out on the screen, this new, longer Ismael’s Ghosts at least can be said to beef up the splats. And some of those splats, it must be said, prove entrancing. One gob of story finds Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), a director who considers sleeping with his actresses a divine right, suddenly confronted with his wife who had gone missing 20 years before. She’s played by Marion Cotillard and turns up at Vuillard’s beach house, first chatting with Vuillard’s current girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) by the sea. The tangle of jealousies and seductions that follows never approaches plausibility but at least affords these actors many ripe and fraught scenes. Everyone trembles and smolders capably.
That story grows out of and gets cut off by the tale of Vuillard’s latest film, a spy drama he’s written in honor of his diplomat brother, who detests him — and who probably isn’t a spy at all. Desplechin offers us too many excerpts from this film in progress, which at times suggests a pale memory of his own La Sentinelle (1992): Its acting is heightened, its direction more overbearing and its palate simpler, but it plays as no more unreal than what is meant to be Vuillard’s actual real life. We also meet the father of the wife who had vanished, an esteemed documentarian played by Laszlo Szabo; in one of the more arresting detours, the old salt causes a painful, hilarious scene on an airplane headed to an Israeli film festival, insisting that as a Jew who has spent his life pursued by evil, he does so have the right to open his own champagne in flight. Other interludes include more information than you really need about Vuillard’s on-set hookups, Vuillard going all 8½ as he fails to wrap his film, and the misadventures of the producer pal who has to try to wrangle the director back to the set.
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There’s no way around it: The whole, here, is a mess. Even with the extra minutes, the film seems unfinished, the connections between its disparate scenarios vague and arbitrary. But outside of the espionage-movie and poor-lonely-director-dude-can’t-stop-getting-laid interludes, many of those scenarios unsettle, intentionally provoke laughter, or prove engrossing, especially in their doublings and mysteries. The film finds Vuillard continually discovering there is a void in his life and then flailing about rather than filling it; the film about him flails, too, always grabbing for more.