Cannes 2017 Review: Ismael’s Ghosts
Arnaud Desplechin, coming off of one of the best films of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, returns to the Croisette with his latest fever dream Ismaël’s Ghosts. Whereas his last film, My Golden Days was charming and masterful, Ismaël’s Ghosts ups the standard Desplechin chaos and kinetics tenfold making the dreaminess of Desplechin’s best more like the nightmares that Mathieu Amalric’s Ismaël suffers from. The impending chaos is watchable and even enjoyable until the “ghosts” of Ismaël become too metaphysical and consuming and the loosely tied strings holding together Desplechin’s vision completely unravel.
Ismaêl is an aging film director who is working on his latest film, an espionage flick inspired by his brother who is depicted in the film within a film as Ivan (Louis Garrel), a young diplomat. Ismaël lives in mourning after his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) disappeared 21 years before. Since, he has settled down with a more stable and mature intellectual, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). As Ismaël is settling into a more healthy life, Carlotta returns as if from the dead.
Desplechin presents the film in a fragmented, haphazard style that isn’t necessarily tied down to a specific time. The continuity is inconsistent for the effect to be more dramatic rather than realistic. One of the most arresting images of the film is Carlotta describing her journeys over the twenty-one years she was away. Carlotta is suddenly in a room consumed by white lights, kneeling and speaking to the audience or maybe no one at all. The drama lends itself better to surrealist imagery and the film is at its strongest when it isn’t contained to the standard of realism. Unfortunately, Desplechin prefers to show the drama of the menage a trois and resulting insanity of each character with shrill yelling matches.
Furthermore, there is just far too much happening in the film for anything to stick. The film opens with a scene from Ismaël’s forthcoming film before skipping to Ismaël meeting up with Carlotta’s father — who, we learn, is a veteran filmmaker and an inspiration for Ismaël. From there, the story of how he and Sylvia met devolves. For people familiar with Desplechin, this may sound par for the course. My Golden Days’ main narrative was told in a flashback with other flashbacks thrown in for good measure. Desplechin juggled that narrative tactic well in My Golden Days by keeping the narrative focused on one character and evoking nostalgia. In Ismaël’s Ghosts, there isn’t as much as an emotional appeal and the plotting is spread too thin. By the third act, the three leads are all in different locations and each story gets slighted by the next.
The incontinence of the plot isn’t detrimental, in fact, it is standard for Desplechin and other French contemporaries. The film really loses its bearings because of its tonal languor. Some of the most delicate genres like noir, melodrama, and camp are at use here. Each of these genres requires a serious presentation with a keen sense of self-awareness — in the film these principles are often presented independently but rarely together. The comedic moments like the clashes between Carlotta and Sylvia seemed too serious, whereas the subsequent disillusion that Ismaël faces isn’t really grounded in any emotion.
Luckily, the reliable cast makes the film far more engaging. Gainsbourg is the stand-out of the film and is perhaps the only person who really understand what the movie is about. Sylvia is presented as the sanest and level-headed character as the trio, but Gainsbourg is the sole actor to bring actual mystery and complexity to her role. She could have been the most tertiary character of the film, but Gainsbourg’s expertise made her the most luminous. Frankly, if this were in competition she would be contending for the Prix d’interprétation feminine. Amalric brings his standard charm and intensity, but the character is so unwired that the performance just develops into a remix of Amalric’s Greatest Hits. The most disappointing performance comes from Cotillard who struggles to make her character as threatening for Sylvia or as tempting for Ismaël as the film perceives. The role requires a contradiction of ingenuity and sageness that being away for 21 years would create. Cotillard’s performance reads more as childish and confused until the end of the third act.
As the film really begins to break at the seams is when it tells its audience the most. Ismaël begins to lose sight of his directorial career because of the drama that has consumed his life. In this sense, the movie is reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo, a fellow official selection contemporary. Maybe the movie speaks more of the artist behind than it lets on. Desplechin will continue to be a tour-de-force in contemporary French cinema, but perhaps he was allowing himself to speak of his own process in Ismaël’s Ghosts.