Ismael's Ghosts

“I have to reinvent myself”, says the filmmaker Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), begging his wife Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) not to leave him. It’s hard to disagree with, considering Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts is yet another autobiographical work tossing at us the same names, themes and hang-ups that characterize his work with hardly anything to speak for it. All through cinema history, middle-aged male filmmakers, generally in their fifties, seem to have had this compulsion to fictionalize themselves on screen, warts and all, regularly mistaking self-exhibition for personal art. Their urge to either exaggerate or downplay their perceived faults more often than not comes across as self-approved absolution, non-apologies by way of apology, and barely-veiled exercises in narcissism and self-therapy. Even the classics of this “genre” (The Quiet Man, 8½, All that Jazz, Deconstructing Harry) are clouded by an over-proximity to the subject. These mid-career works are, it must be noted, different from personal projects filmmakers begin their career with: while the latter spring from a necessity to express, the films in question are invariably symptoms of a creative exhaustion if not an existential crisis. Ismael’s Ghosts provides little justification as to why the personal story of a womanizing filmmaker getting into an artistic block should interest the viewer.

The film begins as a zappy espionage thriller about a diplomat-turned-traitor Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). We don’t see Ivan, but a legend is built around him by the other diplomats at Quai d’Orsay. This sequence, it turns out, is a film by Ismael—a deliberately-dumb provincial fantasy of exciting life—based on his estranged brother, now posted in Egypt (and actually based on Desplechin’s own diplomat brother Fabrice). Ismael claims to be a widower, his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) having disappeared twenty-one years ago. He has a tender filial relationship with Carlotta’s filmmaker father Henri Bloom (László Szabó), also prone to nightmares and panic attacks like him. In a flashback presented through her perspective, Ismael solicits Sylvia in a sticky but authentic manner whose presumptuousness is tempered by the formal language of courtship. In a humorously creepy scene, he insists on entering Sylvia’s apartment against her objections, only to inspect its mise en scène and get out in a jiffy. For Ismael, the apartment space is an index to Sylvia’s personality, a manifestation of the id that reveals everything one needs to know about a person. He should know: his own ancestral home in Roubaix, where he hides after fleeing a shoot, is a storehouse of supressed memories and unregulated drives.

Psychoanalysis and its language are, of course, permanent fixtures in Desplechin, whose previous two features were called Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, Three Memories of My Youth. The repressed phantom of Ismael’s Ghosts is Carlotta, who walks back into Ismael’s life as though spat back by the sea. What ensues is an unwinding of Ismael’s personal and creative life, as Sylvia leaves in heartbreak and jealousy. After sleeping with Carlotta, a hurting Ismael abandons his ongoing film to go hole up in Roubaix (Desplechin’s own hometown), where he hallucinates and goes into a downward spiral like Scottie Ferguson. When his producer comes home to take him back to Paris to finish the film, he claims he’s grieving his brother who died years ago. The producer discovers that his brother, the real Ivan, is well alive and furious at Ismael’s attempt to use his life as movie fodder. Ismael, it would seem, “kills” people off in order to both suck up the sympathy of people willing to love him and feed his own creation. When the producer confronts him again, he narrates the rest of his film: an increasingly crazy tale of international espionage that finds Ivan mistaking a Jackson Pollock scholar for a Russian spy. In this frenzy, Ismael shoots his producer in the arm. Just because.

Ismael’s Ghosts is pieced together through the perspectives of several characters. The scenes become progressively shorter as the film proceeds, sometimes reduced to a couple of shots. This perspectival dispersal isn’t dissimilar to Pollock’s “all over” paintings which, the Russian scholar claims, are actually figurative and compress Pollock’s personal relations onto the canvas. But it’s Ismael’s perspective that the film privileges. “My job (as a filmmaker) is to disappear” he claims to an actress he sleeps with (and who portrays Ivan’s girlfriend in the film within the film, perversely enough). And the action movie Ismael is making, which we see vast stretches of, is Desplechin’s way of disappearing in a film that’s otherwise too full of him. In genre terms, Ismael’s Ghosts is a schizophrenic oscillation between comedy, horror, action, melodrama (containing a couple of scenes with genuine affect) and Bergmanesque art film. It’s a highly film-aware work, employing both silent cinema tropes (irises, superpositions and back-projection) and a baroque aesthetic of accentuated colour, flamboyant camera movements, a florid string score and disjunctive edits. The actors place themselves on the neurotic scale, their caffeinated body language and expressions registering as parapraxes. There’s a lot of dressing and undressing in the film, which I suppose is also symbolic in some way. All this hyperactivity and intertextuality, however, masks a void at the heart of the film, a lack of faith in itself. Desplechin’s cinema needs a reboot.

The Double Lover

When, in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel and Carrière had their characters wake up from a nightmare only to find themselves in another, they were mocking the practice of bourgeois cinema to neatly pack middle-class fears into exciting but essentially harmless narrative excursions. The tendency allows the characters and the audience to get a taste of the life on the “other side” but also maintain distance by waking up/returning home when things get too hot. Freud demonstrated that dreams aren’t arbitrary images but rigorously-structured emanations of the subconscious. The Freudian invasion of cinema, however, has meant that anything put in a dreamlike narrative is expected to be meaningfully assimilated into the film’s structure. In François Ozon’s psychosexual drama The Double Lover, an apparent reworking of a Joyce Carol Oates novel, pretty much anything goes. The protagonist Chloé (Marine Vacth) may or may not be lying, may or may not be hallucinating, may or may not know the people around her. Either way, it is of little consequence. To her shrink, she says lines like “I want to remain weak” and “I exist when you see me like that”. The Double Lover would’ve functioned as a camp spoof of European art movies had it not been so serious about itself.

There is a story, though. Chloé, an ex-model, has pain in her stomach, but her doctor tells her there’s nothing physically wrong with her (first of the several false flags the film plants). She is sent to a psychiatrist, Paul (Jérémie Renier), who falls in love and moves in with her to a new apartment. Chloé discovers the existence of a lookalike of Paul called Louis, also a psychiatrist, from whom Paul is apparently estranged. Wanting to know everything about her dodgy but loving boyfriend, Chloé takes sessions with Louis, who turns out to be professionally and temperamentally the opposite of his brother. He humiliates Chloé, becomes increasingly punitive and finally rapes her, which Chloé, of course, likes—this domination cures her of her frigidity though not her pains. Paul proposes marriage, forcing Chloé to put an end to her trysts with Louis, who reveals a dark secret from the brothers’ past.

Chloé works at the Palais de Tokyo as a museum guard and the gallery’s white walls and empty exhibition spaces register as her psychological landscapes: the visceral photographs and tortured sculptures we see are, in fact, derived from images from The Double Lover. The film develops wholly from Chloé’s broken perspective, which justifies distortions of narrative information, but renders the reality of other characters irrelevant. The film, in fact, elides one crucial information in order to wrap up the plot. A creepy-seeming, horror-movie neighbour is thrown in for easy chills, and to provide a relief from the sight of the same two actors. Ozon uses a soundtrack full of false cues, always implying terror where none exists. His film recalls a host of predecessors: Hitchcock most of all, but also Cronenberg of Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method, Polanski of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, De Palma of Body Double and Passion, and even Aronofsky. In fact, The Double Lover in on such a familiar narrative and aesthetic beat that it seems machine-generated from these films: the same use of old American pop songs, the same circular-spiral camera and architectural descriptions, the same mirror motifs that are by now self-parodical arthouse shibboleths.

Ozon’s film equates psychoanalysis with fucking, both forms of the same action of penetrating a person. The idea is, of course, rather old and rests on the dual implication of the verb “to know”. The three characters take turns exercising phallic violence on each other, reflecting the changing power equation between them. Ozon’s camera constantly zooms in and out in an imitation of the sexual act. At one point, when Chloé orgasms, the camera penetrates her mouth and reaches her vocal cord. In one of the film’s first images, a shot of her vagina dissolves to a shot of her Marion Crane eye. Given it’s a film about parasitic twins, even a brash rape fantasy is furnished as character psychology. True to theme, Ozon uses several cloven compositions—split screens, but also CGI sequences of characters physically bifurcating. There’s a music-video like passage of twin boys wrestling with each other as Vacth and Renier stare directly at the camera. The glimpse of post-winter Paris and Ozon’s colour-coded mise en scène aren’t enough to relieve us from the airlessness of this by-the-numbers thriller.

B for Vendetta

B for Vendetta

I didn’t want to start with this cliché, but Bond is back. This time, loaded with wrath in his heart, distrust in his mind and ammo in his gun. Instant hit Daniel Craig returns for his second performance in the first ever sequel to a bond film. And intriguingly Marc Forster takes the control of the Titanic, much to the concerns of the fans. And to negate the anxiety, the film has been shot in more locations than ever. So, does Quantum of Solace bring back the sheer fun of Goldfinger or does it bring the dreaded minutes of Die Another Day? Or plainly, does it have the licence to thrill?

Quantum of Solace takes off from where Casino Royale (2006) left us with the most stylish Bond ending ever. Bond has just learned his first lesson – one of intense mistrust and callousness. He is shattered by Vasper’s (Eva Green) death and is sets out on a roaring rampage of revenge (sorry Kiddo!). With the help of Eva’s endnote (not another Bond pun!) and Britain’s own forensic service, he traces the whereabouts of Vasper’s extortioner which brings him to Haiti. Almost immediately, he meets Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a borderline femme fatale who herself is on a venture of personal vendetta and intends to avenge the death of her father. Bond finds out that she has close relations with an environmental activist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and employs her to get to him.

Greene says to Bond in one scene: “You make a fine couple – you are both, what is the expression? Damaged goods.” and that is what it is. Camille is Bond’s female counterpart in all sense of the term and equipoised as far as emotional state and instability is concerned. Both of them have lost the ones that they loved the most and both of them are determined to kill for personal relief. They feel tangled in a game they desperately want to finish. Bond helps alleviate Camille’s anxiety but she is unable to reciprocate, in spite of her wishes to free him from the vicious circle of survival and death. With the help of Camille, bond comes to realize that there is more to Greene’s plans than meets the eye. He tracks down Greene’s contacts, which reveals his unimaginable reach only affirming Bond’s now-natural suspicion.

Almost as a generalization, it is the megalomaniacs in Bond films that make them most interesting. Of course, there have been genius inventions such as Goldfinger and Scaramanga and gross mishaps such as Dr. Kananga and Gustav Graves. But it becomes their unwritten duty to make the films quirky, perhaps even lovably cheesy and essentially make them disparate from contemporary franchises such as Indiana Jones or Die Hard. Though the character of Greene is grossly underwritten (like Renard of The World is Not Enough (1999)), it is a very interesting one. He is not a man with steel teeth or huge underground lairs. For heaven’s sake, he does not even carry a gun. But his short stature, the slight hunch and mafia-like charm has enough to make him seem formidable. But as they say in the business world, it is the result that matters. And Greene’s character remains underdeveloped and green (I’m really sorry for that one!).

It is fascinating to see how the franchise has grown in the 46 years of its cinematic existence. From the incessant thriving on cold war and relationship with the Soviets in the Connery era, to chemical warfare and the space race in the Moore era, moving on to the post-Soviet world and the media’s intrusion in world affairs in the Brosnan era and the contemporary issues of terrorism and ecological threats with Craig, the humungous series has reinvented itself time and again to suit and sometimes succumb to the changing face of world culture and politics. The sexist tag on Bond has been discussed, M, a person with immense political power, has been made a woman, and Felix Leiter is now an African American, for crying out loud. All this is evidently a response to the gradual opening up of social outlooks of this mercurial world.

In Quantum of Solace, Greene doesn’t even care about the exhaustive oil race, but for something more rooted in the future and something more dreadful to the human race as a whole – a global issue that has been getting worthy attention in a lot of films off late – although the plot isn’t even relished explicitly by the baddie and not even its consequences stressed upon (another uncharacteristic quality of a Bond film, where the evil plot is usually the driving force for the narrative). Bond finds out Greene’s plans which he executes with the help of the legal privileges of Medrano (Joaquin Cosio), a general who has been trying to overthrow the Bolivian government and the watchful eyes (or rather the absence of it) of the CIA. And like the narrative, Bond does not care much about it and his sole intention is propelled by his need for vengeance.

The film’s basic premise reminds us of the Timothy Dalton starrer Licence To Kill (1989). Both follow Bond’s adventures as he sets out on a personal revenge in order to avenge the death of a beloved. And in both, the grim Bond is considered out of control and his licence to kill is revoked. However, in the older film, Bond never tries to kill almost throughout the whole film. Licence to Kill maintains a kind of tense atmosphere where the upper hand is gained by deceit and espionage and brutal action is but a luxury. And this is where Quantum of Solace itself goes out of control. Mr. Bond thinks by his gun and his primary objective remains dodging the next bullet.

Much talk is going on about how this film is so uncharacteristic of Bond and how un-Bond the franchise has become (yes, I know. No “Bond, James Bond”. No Q, No Moneypenny. No “Shaken, Not Stirred”, No puns…). So has Bond lost his suavity and panache? Yes and No. One should see that the age of Connery thrived on the elegance of the lead and his funny but daring escapades. The style part of the film arose because of the way the character was written and the uninterrupted shots that filmed him. The franchise was more of a spy series than an action till the age of Brosnan after which there has been a marked difference in the way Bond has been catered to the audience. Probably, fuelled by the financial debacle of Licence to Kill, Eon productions was hesitant to perpetuate the series and it was not until 1995 (GoldenEye) that they realized that the character should be marketed differently, perhaps as an influence of the CG wave. And now, the style aspect of the film rises from the progressive technology and the way it is utilized to furnish the high mojo quotient to the series. So it is true that Bond now isn’t what Ian Fleming imagined him to be, but only as a inevitable necessity owing to the changing times. But having said that, there is definitely a scope for marriage of the two eras and decidedly a possibility of restoration of Bond’s lost magic.

With a filmography that is highlighted by films such as Finding Neverland (2004) and The Kite Runner (2007), one wouldn’t place the odds in favour of the debutant Bond director Marc Forster. Perhaps, Forster himself was out on a mission – to prove that he is capable of experimenting with genres. The film seems Coppola-esque in a couple of scenes and Inarittu-ish in another, but maintains a Michael Bay-ian mindlessness almost throughout. High on action, with almost every alternate scene being a high octane automobile chase or a hand to hand combat, the average shot length for most part of the film is perhaps less than half a second and is at times (actually, many times) distracting. It feels like having no space to think or even breathe and of course, no quantum of solace. All of it seems acceptable when one is introduced to the third act. It looks as if the director has chopped off a good twenty minuets off the last act and as a result the whole showdown at the Bolivian desert feels abrupt and hurried.

All said, what is the bottom line? Another high-flying action extravaganza in this year’s tryingly long queue is satisfactory. Not as refreshing as Casino Royale and definitely not as pathetic as Die Another Day (2004), Quantum of Solace is a good film to watch for people who are new to Bond and they wouldn’t have any reason to complain (By the way, the film has a snazzy title track by Jack White and Alicia Keys). But for guys who have been boasting about Bond countdowns and ranting about the best and the worst of Bond, better stick to Connery!


P.S: This brings me to the end of the long and mostly enjoyable Bond marathon. Hope you enjoyed it too.