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James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque

"Why isn't anybody booing?" worried my friend as we filed out from the Cannes festival's first press screening, of its opening-night film, Arnaud Desplechin's Ismael's Ghosts.

I assured her there was no point, given how the French auteur's full-on farrago stood as its own best criticism. Or perhaps everyone was simply left catatonically speechless by the film's proliferation of aesthetic gaffes. Not that we hadn't been forewarned by the director himself. "I described my project to a friend: 'I think I've invented a pile of plates of fiction that I will break against the screen. When they're all broken, the film will be finished.'"

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The narrative crockery indeed shatters in Ghosts, leaving not the fractured masterpiece that Desplechin intended – he has invoked such modernist milestones as Fellini's and Resnais's Providence as inspirations – but a heap of narcissistic shards.

Desplechin has long been pegged as an "actor's director" and his films, including A Christmas Tale and Kings & Queen, have been celebrated for their ensembles of France's finest. Ismael's Ghosts again gathers a thespian aristocracy of contemporary French cinema, providing ample talent for the festival's tapis rouge.

Desplechin veteran Mathieu Amalric plays Ismael Vuillard, a film director writing his next project, a portrait of his brother (Louis Garrel, looking less like k.d. lang than usual) who is an international diplomat and spy. (That Vuillard was born in Desplechin's hometown of Roubaix suggests that the portrait is not a little autobiographical.) A widower after his wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), suddenly disappeared while they were both in their early 20s, the hard-drinking Ismael takes up with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a willowy astrophysicist who saves his life. Yes, astrophysicist.

To return to Desplechin's dishy metaphor, the smashing of those "plates of fiction" starts early. First thrusting us into an over-edited tale of espionage with ominous music, the film abruptly changes its meta gears to reveal that the would-be thriller is the latest project of the portentously named Vuillard – one of many preening and mostly irrelevant art-historical references in Ghosts. (I could not help but notice in mounting horror that I was wearing the very same blue flowered shirt as the one Amalric spends much of the film in, no doubt intended by the director as a reference to Édouard Vuillard's decoratively patterned paintings.)

We are never certain whether the spy film that Desplechin keeps interpolating into the film's main narrative, sometimes cueing the shift with music, sometimes not, is meant to be as ludicrous as it appears, which shades the Vuillard character with ambiguity – hack or not? – that Amalric's histrionic performance obliterates. Trussing him to a bed near the film's end does little to control his overacting; he merely finds new ways to writhe, bug his eyes, and noisily remonstrate.

Once a talented tyro, the middle-aged Desplechin now presents himself as a perpetual prodigy, turning his tale of a long-missing, now revenant wife who arrives to reclaim her husband into an armature for countless cultural references, both self-directed and not. (Amalric played an Ismael Vuillard in Kings & Queen where his character was a musician and the film's emphasis on Jewish culture is characteristic of the philosemitic Desplechin, who no doubt knows that the actual Vuillard had similar sympathies.)

The fond use of antique filmic techniques (the iris shot, back projection, floating superimpositions) and the parade of allusions should surprise no one familiar with a director who has previously crammed his work with cinematic homages and philosophical pensées – Kierkegaard figures prominently in his My Sex Life...or How I Got into an Argument, for example.

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So it is that Carlotta's name evokes Hitchcock's Vertigo, a painting of her young self on Ismael's wall recalls Preminger's Laura, various characters' names (Bloom, Dedalus) James Joyce – though Dedalus has also been the name of at least three previous incarnations in Desplechin's cinema. Carlotta quotes from Rilke's Slumber Song, Ismael decries Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Sylvia reads Flannery O'Connor.

The film turns into an art-historical lesson in its final third, as the interleaved spy story includes a seminar on Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, while its framing tale features a disquisition on the invention of perspective in northern painting (Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait) and southern (Fra Angelico's Annunciation). The film's music also shamelessly milks the sublime adagio from Beethoven's 15th string quartet while Cotillard's mad frug to Bob Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe made me want to dispatch her back to the tomb.

As much as the film shuttles back and forth in time, between its main narrative and another, entre France and other countries, it feels increasingly inert, the Desplechinian digressions, which his fans prize, more desperate than implicative. "It's too late," a line that refrains through Ismael's Ghost seems to finally sum up its aesthetic impasse. That a version 20 minutes longer will open after Cannes seems more like a threat than a promise.

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