As the eponymous character of director Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts” grows frenzied in a harrowing tale of loss and filmmaking, so does the movie-within-a-movie about a spy. The result is a disorienting melodrama that starts strong but grows to be as messy as its lead character’s life.
Twenty-one years ago, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) disappeared from Ismaël’s (Mathieu Amalric) life. Since then, he has spent time putting his life back together with the help of his lover Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). While he works on his next feature film and his love for Sylvia intensifies, Carlotta miraculously returns from her supposed death, turning Ismaël’s life upside down. As his life unravels, so does that of Ismael’s film’s protagonist, Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel).
“Ismael’s Ghosts” is very melodramatic, with the first half dominated by an uncertainty that is as agonizing as it is gripping. Desplechin introduces the viewer to the characters’ heightened emotions thoroughly, balancing Ismael’s reality with the spy narrative of his movie. The return of Carlotta is a particularly well-executed bombshell.
While Amalric as Ismaël is devastatingly spectacular for part of the first half, the majority of his performance is overshadowed by his female co-stars. These leading ladies do a better job navigating the larger arcs and subtle moments of the film. In particular, Gainsbourg was the beating heart of “Ismael’s Ghosts,” providing a shyness and delicateness that weaves scenes together and contrasts the emotion turbulence of
Cotillard is a similarly delightful enigma. Her stories of how she spent her time away are as mysterious as the character’s ghost-like mannerisms. The audience is left doubting whether or not any of what she is saying is real.
Halfway through the film, however, it seems Desplechin and screenwriters Julie Peyr and Léa Mysius lost all ability to construct a narrative. On paper, it is fascinating to think about how an artist’s personal life and the crippling doubt they experience creatively impacts their work, and seeing the parallels in Ivan’s film was initially quite intriguing. But Desplechin’s attempts at infusing themes of loss and doubt are jumbled into three to four extra subplots that are haphazardly strung out. It injects twice the emotion with half the execution.
Gainsbourg and Cotillard are severely underused in the muddled second half, only to conveniently reappear to remind the audience that they are still there. Ismael’s growing distress, represented through his constant shrieking and alcoholism, disconnects the viewer from the character instead of enrapturing them into his world.
By the end, the film becomes entrenched in unrelenting sorrow but doesn’t earn any sentiment from the viewer. The lead cast, certain subplots and the overarching themes certainly make a case for the first half with its more narrative focus, but by its denouement, the scope is much too large and confusing to satisfy any audience.
“Ismael’s Ghosts” premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2017. It opened on March 23 at Quad Cinema and The Film Society at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, where a series of Q&As was hosted with Arnaud Desplechin.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26 print edition. Email Guru Ramanathan at [email protected]