A director channels his anxieties and obsessions into his movies: That’s hardly a novel premise for a film, but what’s especially frustrating about Ismael’s Ghosts is that filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has a more intriguing one right at his fingers. But like the director at the center of his story, Desplechin allows self-indulgence to get in the way.
Mathieu Amalric stars as Ismael, a prolific, driven filmmaker who’s seeing Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an astrophysicist who’s a grounding influence on this tempestuous artist. But there’s a specter hanging over their relationship—that of Carlotta, Ismael’s wife who went missing nearly 21 years ago. Long since officially declared dead, Carlotta is never far from the thoughts of her aged father (László Szabó), who keeps having nightmares about her, and her memory haunts Ismael, as well. Why did she disappear one day? And did she actually die? If not, what became of her?
Those questions have always resided at the back of Ismael’s mind, but his new love affair with Sylvia has gone a long way toward creating some sense of equilibrium for the director, who’s writing a screenplay about his estranged brother (played by Louis Garrel in the film within Ismael’s Ghosts) in which he imagines him as a top-secret spy. But in the process of working on the script, Ismael is visited by an unexpected stranger: Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) walks back into his life, threatening to upend the new foundations he’s created for his world.
In its initial stages, Ismael’s Ghosts has the potential to play with romantic-triangle conventions—especially when it’s not clear early on if this woman really is Carlotta. (Other tantalizing possibilities: She’s a ghost or some fantastical figment of the characters’ imagination.) And for a little while, Desplechin targets the drama and dark comedy that transpires once Carlotta appears. Ismael is, at first, furious with her, demanding to know where she’s been and why she never got in contact with him. Her answers are unpersuasive—she impulsively decided to walk out on her life, eventually marrying a man in New Delhi who recently died—which leads the viewer to wonder if there’s something more sinister or mysterious going on.
The great failing of Ismael’s Ghosts is that, ultimately, nothing deeper is developing. In theory, the tension between these three characters ought to drive everything that follows. Sylvia, understandably, starts to feel like the third wheel, drawn to Carlotta because she’s curious about this woman who was once so important to Ismael. But there’s also anger and jealousy stirring within her: For Sylvia, Carlotta has represented a wilder, more passionate version of herself—and, now that she’s back among the living, maybe Ismael would prefer the real thing. But Ismael’s torn loyalties instead take a backseat to the movie he’s making.
In theory, such a distraction would make sense. (We suspect that, for Ismael, work is his way of confronting his real-life problems.) But Ismael’s movie about his brother is a thriller that has little bearing on the issues plaguing him with Carlotta and Sylvia. Even worse, the movie-within-a-movie looks like a cheesy, hyperbolic dud, which makes it even stranger that Desplechin focuses much of the film’s second half on its development, showing both Ismael’s creative struggles and scenes from the finished movie. Whereas something like 8 1/2 derives its psychological intensity from the direct correlation between the character’s reality and the fiction he’s concocting, Ismael’s Ghosts feels disjointed, its mirror-image musings not particularly resonant. We don’t care about the movie Ismael is making, and we can’t understand why he’s making it when his actual life is infinitely more compelling.
Desplechin (A Christmas Tale, Kings & Queen) is known for his full-to-bursting melodramas—his movies often feel like they’re veering off into tangents dictated by his spontaneous, emotional characters. When he has a strong grasp on the material, the narrative curlicues replicate life’s messy unpredictability. But with Ismael’s Ghosts, the loose strands fail to cohere into something greater, referencing different cinematic genres without significantly building on their strengths. To be sure, there’s a lively impishness in Desplechin’s method—from moment to moment, it’s hard to say exactly where Ismael’s Ghosts is headed—but in the end, a viewer’s patience for the filmmaker’s brio is exceeded by frustration. If Desplechin was so interested in bring Carlotta back from the dead, why not give her more to do?
That frustration extends to Cotillard’s performance. Meant to seem distant and alluring—an object of unattainable, tragic beauty, much like her roles in American films such as Inception—the Oscar-winner isn’t well-served by a screenplay that never quite justifies her character’s disappearance. Still, Cotillard could sell the implausibility by fully embodying this enigmatic woman—and, yet, she doesn’t quite make the leap of logic believable. From there, nothing about the character makes much sense: Whether she’s improvising a dance to Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” or standing out in the rain staring up at her father’s apartment, Carlotta is an uninspired, dime-store-novel conception of The Woman Who Got Away—a cliché that the accomplished actress can’t enliven.
Likewise, Amalric (a Desplechin regular) is merely another iteration of the familiar frenzied-filmmaker character we’ve seen before. His early torment about Carlotta’s return—and how it changes his feelings toward Sylvia—has some sting, but the more involved Ismael gets in his own film, the more we tune out. Gainsbourg is the most muted of the three leads, but she, too, has been left stranded by a script that lacks focus. Did Desplechin get seduced by the problems that plague filmmakers like himself? If so, he’s done a disservice to his own work, which needed a solution to its deficiencies—not an extended reverie that merely highlights them.
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin, Léa Mysius, Julie Peyr
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Garrel, Alba Rohrwacher, László Szabó, Hippolyte Girardot
Release Date: Screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.