When I recently reviewed Alain Guiraudie’s bizarro drama Staying Vertical, I described it as a feverish plot driven by the desperation of writer’s block instead of any real-world logic. I wrote, “It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudie needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Charlie Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.” Let’s go ahead and add Arnaud Desplechin’s latest feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, to that list of absurdist French dramas continuing the Kaufman tradition of writer’s block mania narratives. Like Staying Vertical, Ismael’s Ghosts follows an increasingly frazzled artist as they avoid the completion of a creative project to the point where their ever-growing list of obligations surround them like wolves (literally, in the case of Staying Vertical). Greater thematic purpose is near impossible to pinpoint in these works, as they’re driven mostly by the anxiety of being obligated to create. It’s like the filmmakers are pulling the audience into their own personal anguish of having to tell a story onscreen in the first place, making the immense pressure felt by the creator just as much of an emotional burden for the consumer. The results of these writer’s block meta experiments can be uneven (and even at times tedious), but they can also lead to fascinating, unpredictable places.
A long-successful filmmaker prolongs the process of writing & directing a feature about his estranged younger brother. He tends to his aging father-in-law, who shares the emotional pain of the filmmaker’s wife’s disappearance over two decades in the past. His current girlfriend is understanding about the ongoing emotional grief that lingers from this disappearance, but unsure of their relationship (and her own sexuality) in more general, intangible ways. The longer the screenplay & subsequent film go unfinished, the more absurdly disastrous these conflicts become. The brother becomes even more irrevocably distant as his fictional movie-within-the movie avatar strays further from the truth. The movie’s production becomes stalled & exponentially more expensive by the day. The father in law’s mental & physical health plummet at an alarming rate. Most significantly, the filmmaker’s wife, who’s been missing and presumed dead for decades, reappears in his life to blow up his current romantic relationship from the inside. The progression (or, perhaps more accurately, regression) of these events & relationships don’t make much logical sense, a fact that only becomes more increasingly obvious as their circumstances deteriorate. Somehow, though, you get the sense that everything would return to a healthy, balanced normal if our crazed, drunken antihero would just finish the damn movie he started writing. It’s his procrastination that threatens to unravel the very fabric of reality just as much as it’s his narcissistic self-absorption.
Ismael’s ghosts, as referenced in the title, are a brother, a wife, and an adopted child, all missing form his current life. These hauntings from the past aren’t a source of grief so much as a piling-on of anxiety: crazy-making sources of obligation that make his inability to complete the film he started writing even more stressful. The true conflict that drives the film is the desperation of writer’s block under the pressure of audiences waiting for a finished product. This creative desperation fractures the narrative into an array of opposing genres: spy thriller, Guy Maddin-style art piece complete with double exposure photography, melodrama about amnesia, a Persona-style psychological thriller (played out by French heavyweights Marion Cottillard & Charlotte Gainsbourg at a beach house), absurdist comedy, and so on. Ismael describes this hellish break with reality in the line, “I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up,” but the truth is that he could wake up any moment if he would just finish the movie he promised his producers. In the meantime, the audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.