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Ismael’s Ghosts

* * - - -

Messy and unpolished relationship drama wastes an impressive cast.

Image of Ismael’s Ghosts

Arnaud Desplechin/France/2017/114 min, 135 min (director’s cut)

Available on Blu-ray Monday 24th Sep 2018

A film with a cast of great and classy French actors such as Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Mathieu Amalric, which opened Cannes in 2017, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts seems to promise more emotional and artistic intensity than it can actually deliver.  The story of a tormented filmmaker whose nightmares, losses and lifelong traumas have long been menacing a serene existence, it feels, unfortunately more like a messy and ultimately pointless account of improbable relationships.

Ismael (Amalric) is a film director who is working on a spy film in which he is putting something of himself, and which his partner Sylvia (Gainsbourg) recognises as an attempt to solve the mysteries and the anguishes of his own life. His wife, Carlotta (Cotillard), whom he married when he was very young, has been missing for 21 years and was declared dead after ten by her father and Ismael, in an attempt to survive their loss.

When Carlotta unexpectedly returns, the pain and frustration return with her, filling Ismael’s life and his relationships with doubt, jealousy, and rage. The dynamics that follow Carlotta’s return are interesting but are also sporadic and unauthentic. The film’s characters are impulsive, capricious and have a rather bizarre and unrealistic way of going about communicating with one another. It often switches from paranoid to polite to utterly dramatic without an apparent reason.

The film’s main problem is that it feels almost entirely artificial, and the film-within-the-film (the spy story, which is a product of Ismael’s imagination) ironically suffers from the same problems. They both feel stiff and superficial, and so do the characters: Ismael is a stereotypical bohemian artist haunted by demons, and the women who revolve around him have no true development of their own.

There are some beautiful, passionate, human moments in Desplechin’s film, which is undoubtedly enriched by the cast’s impeccable performances. But there is something unpolished, bizarre, and simply pretentious about the film, which feels more like a caricature of what it could have been.