Ismael’s Ghosts

Review by Jaime N Christley @j_christley

Directed by

Arnaud Desplechin

Starring

Charlotte Gainsbourg Marion Cotillard Mathieu Amalric

Anticipation.

Early word from the Cannes premiere wasn’t great.

Enjoyment.

To nobody’s surprise, Desplechin keeps a lot of plates spinning effortlessly.

In Retrospect.

Where most contemporary films could stand to lose an hour, Desplechin’s latest could use an extra one.

Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg vie for Matthieu Amalric’s affections in this taut melodrama.

No one who’s ever encountered the work of Arnaud Desplechin will be surprised by the writer/director’s habit of mashing together bits and pieces of repurposed and retrofitted material. Ismael’s Ghosts, his tenth narrative feature since 1991, is energised by the depthless well of impatient beauty that fans of 2004’s Kings & Queen and 2008’s A Christmas Tale know well.

Will Desplechin ever make another masterpiece like his idiosyncratic period drama Esther Kahn? Perhaps not, but the dividends paid by his ‘Mathieu Amalric plays an addled yet high-octane creative, unable to cope with challenges monumental and mundane alike’ mode are more than satisfactory.

The first hour of Ismael’s Ghosts is dominated by the story of alcoholic/insomniac/pill-popping filmmaker Ismael Vuillard (also the name of the musician Amalric played in Kings & Queen), who is more or less content in a long-term relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), until the return of his long-lost wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard). Intimations of the macabre hover about the place; in one moment the film recalls some off-kilter Ian McEwan tale, the next it evokes the gothic edge of an Ingmar Bergman seaside melodrama.

Phantoms that produce unendurable anxieties for the film’s characters are what Desplechin uses as a means to hitch one narrative wagon to the next. Ismael has maintained a lasting friendship with the father of his presumed-dead wife, celebrated director Henri Bloom (László Szabó, in a role that once would have been occupied by the late Desplechin stock player Jean-Paul Roussillon).

Bloom has been so ensconced in a single, familiar rut of inconsolability that, when he’s beset by the reality of his daughter’s return, has nowhere to turn to but abject grief and psychotic denial. On the flip side, Carlotta struggles to cope with the fact that, while her father lives, the two are irreparably estranged, as if seeing each other on the far side of a dream.

Ismael’s espionage screenplay, based on the imagined life of his foreign-service brother (Louis Garrel), provides still another prime mover for this slippery film. Crafting hilariously incoherent John le Carré boilerplate, Ismael turns his real and undoubtedly more grounded brother into a quicksilver imp of diplomatic legend, a jittery savant, a projection of his own permanent live-wire state into a world he can only imagine in a binge of drunk creativity, never fewer than three whiskeys deep at his laptop, his ashtray full.

Camerawork and cutting – even the occasional deployment of brazenly expressionist lighting effects – tell the tale of Desplechin’s own impatience (coupled with the implicit trust he has in the audience’s ability to keep up), flitting through story setups and double-backs with a weaving, staccato rhythm. A typical Desplechin feint occurs when he stops to burrow into a detail, a memory or a photograph, the pace of the film seeming to flag only in the manner of bated breath – a look before a leap.

We’re carried along by the exhilarating sensation of a storyteller eternally besieged by his own restlessness, but served in equal measure by an uncanny self-assurance. That Ismael’s Ghosts seems to exist simultaneously on all its conflicting planes may be an illusion, but a stubbornly persistent one.

Published 1 Jun 2018

Tags: Arnaud Desplechin Marion Cotillard

Anticipation.

Early word from the Cannes premiere wasn’t great.

Enjoyment.

To nobody’s surprise, Desplechin keeps a lot of plates spinning effortlessly.

In Retrospect.

Where most contemporary films could stand to lose an hour, Desplechin’s latest could use an extra one.

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