Cannes: Director Arnaud Desplechin talks Bergman, Hitchcock and his latest film 'Ismael's Ghosts' [Interview]

Opening the 70th edition of the Cannes film festival, and presented out of competition, "Ismael's Ghosts" is a Pandora's box of a film which stars two of the best French actresses around: Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It's his most ambitious film to date, a loosely-inspired remake of Renoir's "Providence" as directed by Bergman and Hitchcock. Mathieu Amalric stars as, let's all admit it, Desplechin's doppelganger, a film director shooting his latest picture and living a happy, solemn life with wife Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Enter Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), his, supposedly, deceased ex-wife, who suddenly reappears at their beach-fronthome after going missing more than 20 years ago.

Cannes opens with an overtly-stylized film that pays tribute to some of the legends of the medium and Arnaud Desplechin couldn't be happier to walk up the stairs of the Lumiere theater with his two bombshell stars by his side. I spoke to the venerable writer-director of such great films as "A Christmas Tale," Kings and Queens," and "My Golden Days" about his influences, Cannes and whether Ismael really is his doppelganger. 

Did you choose for the film to be out of competition?

I consider Thierry Fremaux and [former president of Cannes] Giles Jacob as my friends. It's an idea that came from Thierry, an idea that really moved me because it's 70th anniversary of the festival. It's a lot of pressure because usually very light films are chosen, but this is an auteur movie so I found that to be a very beautiful gesture. It was also quite agreeable to not be part of the competition. I saw it as an honor and it was very emotional for me.

Usually, of late, it's a Woody Allen movie that opens the fest and there is that Woody-esque neuroses in the film.

I love his films.
I know it's been a tradition for you to show a classic, theme-related movie to your cast and crew before the shoot. Did you show anything this time around? I didn't actually. Marion [Cotillard] and Charlotte [Gainsbourg] were so busy with other movies that they couldn't meet until the initial day of shooting. Charlotte was in New York, Marion actually, she was shooting that gigantic Robert Zemeckis movie that just never seems to finish, which has just consumed her. However, I do know what I would have shown: Alain Resnais' "Providence." The 1977 film! Yes! For the fury going on in the head of John Gielgud and the torture of the wife dying of cancer. He's stuck in this house just like Ismael. He dreams of chapters from a novel and with those chapters he tries to find meaning in his life again. It's a visually splendid work of art. That movie just enveloped me when I came to Paris at the tender age of 17. It became this monster that just consumed my life. Actually that's a great movie to have as an influence on "Ismael." That constant clash between reality and fiction ... Yeah, exactly. Somebody like Ismael who totally just loses it later in the film. He locks himself up and just builds everything in the basement with tread and needle, which quite clearly is metaphor for the mindset he has going on. Yeah, he makes a real mess out of that basement. The string is all over the place. Just like him. He can't connect the dots anymore. You mentioned Renoir, but I was so thinking of Bergman as well with this latest movie. Yes, especially "Persona," and "Shame," really, any of the films he's shot during that time period in Faro. Before we started on this movie I thought to myself I have Ismael and I have these women with him, it would really be too obvious, so I quickly hopped off any Bergman that was looming in my head and went straight into Alfred Hitchcock's arms. Hitchcock was protecting me from Bergman and Bergman was protecting me from Hitchcock. That's good protection Sure is. I actually stole a few shots from "Persona." I noticed that. The hospital scene? You're good. The other one? Can't think of it at the moment, probably missed it. It was very subtle nod to the two faces merging. You could blink and miss it. Yeah! Actually, come to think of it, both actresses could have switched roles and the movie would have still worked. Very much like in "Persona." Yes, even if both roles are the opposite it would still work and that would make a whole other movie. Of course, there's also, as mentioned, Hitchcock. "Vertigo" is all over this movie. The theme of this film is taken directly from "Vertigo." Carlotta comes from nowhere, in fact it looks like she came from the water. When she's dressed up in her white coat, all I could think of was Kim Novak in that movie. But, unlike Novak, Cotillard plays it straight and real. There's no pretending who she is. How was it working with her? You know, Marion is a star, she really is. She can go from making a Christopher Nolan movie back to a Dardennes. It's really incredible to watch. Did you always want Carlotta addressing the viewer? She explains how it started with Ismael. I didn't want the story told by a man, I didn't want any male privilege or male dominated standpoint. I wanted a woman to do it. She also narrates the epilogue, which wasn't written until the very last day I had to submit the script to my producer. I fell in love with "My Golden Days" and I feel like with that movie and this latest one you're really pushing the boundaries in terms of structure. I had such an immense pleasure doing "My Golden Days," it was just overwhelmingly joyous for me. After that shoot I said ok I made a film on these absolute beginners, just starting their lives, and we shot it with actors that weren't really professional. I wanted to do something that had the opposite effect, with actors that will impress me with their world class experience. The line in "Ismael" that says it all is when Carlotta says "Life just happened to me." You can't hang on to what happened in the past and you have to live in the present which is the opposite of what the characters in "My Golden Days" are doing. It's that second chance people have when they enter their 40's. Back to the intricate structure of these films, the editing must have been intense Very tough. The narrative structure was complex, but, at the same time, it was my job to make sure you're not lost. Once Ismael goes crazy in the film so does the movie. Then that's where it becomes complicated and you have instead all three characters that were in the same house, they're now separated and that's where it becomes incredibly difficult to edit it in a way that makes sense. I actually have a theory that Ismael is your alter ego [pauses and smiles] Let's just put it this way, Ismael is everything I would love to do that I'm too scared of doing. I'm shy, he's arrogant. I wear suits, he's a dirty dresser. I only drink water, he drinks alcohol. He swoons the ladies and I don't. It is all disguise, he doesn't really want to be those things, he's hiding.