The following essay was produced as part of the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 55th edition of the New York Film Festival.
Arnaud Desplechin may be the only filmmaker with a literary sensibility who understands the storytelling power of rap. His dialogue resembles a specific brand of French intellectualism that manifests in maladroit humor, and he maintains a general focus on epic, convoluted structures and literary motifs — soliloquies that break the fourth wall, omniscient narration, and strongly developed characters (which tie directly with his consistent lengthiness). His characters, while gauche, are irrevocably more privileged — they are artists and filmmakers, occupying large houses and indulgent with their resources.
This is why rap becomes a key contrasting factor in several of his films: Hip hop is not for the bourgeoise. The social issues that the lyrics of the rap songs often tackle have no relevance to the issues of the characters’ listening to them. There is an inherent disharmony between visuals depicting opulence and solitude, and lyrics lamenting poverty and promoting community through love and dance.
In mainstream cinema, hip-hop represents escapism: One immediately thinks of films that defined the genre like “8 Mile” or “Straight Outta Compton,” in which hip-hop amplifies lofty ambitions and offers a route to fame and success. Desplechin, who reacts to genre conventions by otherwise utilizing grandiose music compositions that evoke the cinematic, instead turns hip hop into a means of plainly representing reality.
Both his directorial debut “La Vie Des Morts” and 2004’s “Kings & Queen” include sequences of family crises being resolved with rap tunes (and the latter contains an unforgettable spontaneous Mathieu Amalric b-boy dance showcase). Such moments support the universality of the musical genre while calling into question the generational divide it usually invokes.
In his his latest effort, the multilayered narrative “Ismael’s Ghosts,” a syncopated orchestral score suggests the thriller genre with a film-within-a-film written by the movie’s frustrated filmmaker star. This musical composition is enough to formulate a sense of intrigue, bolstered by images of dimly lit corridors leading into trapdoors, and government officials sitting around fancy dinner tables discussing folklore as if they were mob bosses.
It climaxes with an interview for a secret government position that manages to be both intensely dramatic, and humorously aloof, before Desplechin attempts a conventional mic-drop edit: “I was tired,” the exalted Dedalus (Louis Garrel) whines, as he fumbles for the door; the music ramps up and the narrative fizzles out, revealed to be a part of the script being written by director Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), who sits forlornly in front of a stack of papers, scotch in hand. He’s listening to rap music — an unreleased song by French DJs that could be any rap song from the ‘80s — which grounds the film in reality even as the constructed imaginary of this meta-film adopts a traditional music score.
The next instance of rap is even more evocative of this emotional sensationalism: Sylvie has suddenly left Ismael; in the dead of a rainy night in a phone booth outside of a gas station, the orchestral score climaxes as he weeps to her voicemail. This triggers a flashback — a brief scene of him drunkenly confessing his love one night to Sylvie before a quick cut triggers a remix of “Peace, Love and Having Fun” by Afrika Bambaataa, and the sound of Ismael directing, screaming viciously at members of his set harshly interrupt. The characters as a whole, who wear their hearts on their sleeves and are very prone to spontaneous outbursts have their unhinged mindsets reflected not so much through the music they listen to, but rather through constant antithetical shifts in the music used and the stylistic disproportion that such shifts impose.
Rap becomes appropriate theme music for Ismael, who embodies both the outwardly masculine stereotype that has come to be associated with the genre, as well as the innate insecurity implicated by hyper-masculinity. Here is an outwardly successful filmmaker with a manic temperament about him, defined immediately by his fondness for a type of music that is both liberated and iconoclastic. He thinks highly of himself, as do the other men in the film, but this cocksuredness is transparent, so accentuated that it becomes an evocation for extreme sensitivity, fragility.
He is occasionally tamed by his emotions. In following orchestrally-scored scenes that evoke the starkest of dramatics with naturalistic hip-hop sequences, lives become grounded in reality, yet retain the heightened romance of the movies. In both cases, the scenes that follow are genuinely tender, underscored by soft violins and more nuanced because of the spectrum of music leading up to them.
Through these scenes and Desplechin’s general adoration of the genre, the filmmaker channels rap’s objective as a catalyst for personal catharsis. It’s the perfect supplement to his form of expressionist cinema, which exudes energy and emotion on many levels at once. Desplechin’s films are like mixtapes, embodying various moods and digging into characters’ psyches with dizzying fervor and freneticism. Rap is its own language, taking part in a dialect with the rest of the film’s soundscape: sound cues, dialogue, and music of other genres — folk, jazz, classical.
But, in the spirit of his bohemian characters, disposable pop music is nowhere to be found. They’re too deep for that.