What: Ismaël’s Ghosts
Who: Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) is a playwright writing a film based on the life of his estranged diplomat brother. The opening of the film is, in fact, the opening of this film-within-a-film, which turns out to be an extrapolation bearing little similarity to banal reality of his brother’s life; it is used instead as a vehicle with which Ismael projects his own subconscious desires for a more sophisticated and mysterious existence. His actual life takes a turn when his estranged wife Carlotta, the titular ‘ghost’ (Marion Cotillard), missing and presumed dead for twenty years, suddenly reenters his life, bringing to the surface unresolved anguish that further blurs the border between reality and Ismaël’s already overactive Id. If Ismaël’s Ghosts sounds like a slog, it is – the audience’s strains to sustain attention were noticeable during the lengthy 135 minute running time.
The closest film for comparison I’ve seen to date is Nocturnal Animals, which similarly featured a film-within-a-film expressing the creator character’s subconscious with limited effect on the story proper. However, director Tom Ford keeps these stories in their lanes with efficient, plot-driven story telling, and a semblance of form in sticking to genre tropes (similarly to Ismaël’s Ghosts, an action film within a romantic drama). The plot, characterisation and the general disregard for internal consistency in Ismaël’s Ghosts is often baffling.
While flawed characters can make for interesting viewing, the characters of Ismaël’s Ghosts were flawed to the point of challenging the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Ismaël and his peers are selfish, impulsive and prone to irrational posturing. His current partner Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is an astrophysicist, but only insofar as she is used to deliver space-themed platitudes. Carlotta, having returned from finding herself in India, interacts with other characters with an ill-deserved sense of naivety that carries none of the weight that her disappearance, worldliness, and a twenty-year-long emotional void would suggest. To its credit, the film doubles down and seems to visually emphasise every careless platitude and impulse with a framed grimace or pose; the whole setup evokes a studied grotesqueness that recalls a Sylvain Chomet cartoon. The screenwriting would be too melodramatic if it were sincere, but to do it deliberately comes off as disingenuous.
So what ties this all together? Some recurring lines that hint to the audience the film’s dissonant structure; frequent scenarios that offer insightful observation into the nature of ageing and fulfillment; and Jan Van Eyck’s Arnofini Portrait, famously depicting a mirror image of the artist in his own painting, which appears prominently in one of the film’s scenes. Its placement seems to signal to the audience that similarly, on top of the layers already mentioned, Ismaël’s Ghosts is partly autobiographical, a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of jumbled emotions of significance to Desplechin. If this is the case, then the film’s incoherence works to that effect, and within this dream-like logic even the fourth-wall breaking monologue that closes the film is a nice touch. I even read that Mathieu Almaric has played Ismaël before (complete with references to this previous life in the film), and so the self-referentiality in reusing the character is bold. But by this point, this is the research talking, and shouldn’t detract from the conclusion that Ismaël’s Ghosts is a film that pulls a lot of tricks, but doesn’t end up saying much.