Ismael’s Ghosts contains two movies within it, neither of which is any good. One is a shambolic, unfinished ghostly love triangle, whose pretensions to say something profound about artists and their muses are dashed by the pretentious script. The other is a half-told film-within-a-film, and less coherent than the main arc, grinding things to a halt whenever it appears. The feature divided critics last year on Cannes’ opening night, and though the studded cast do much to elevate writer-director Arnaud Desplechin’s unwieldy script, the many half-baked ideas never manage to coalesce.
Celebrated writer-director Ismael (Mathieu Almaric) has met Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg, flawless in an underwritten role), an astrophysicist, cautious at falling in love with a widowed man, the spectre of which they both still feel. Close to his deceased wife’s father, Henri (László Szabó), a renowned filmmaker still mourning his daughter with daily whiskeys, these three are thrown into disarray when she, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), reappears after 21 years. It becomes extremely difficult to draw a cogent summary of where the film goes from there.
Safe to say, its Cannes debut and desultory trailers pitching Ismael’s Ghosts as some French reimagining of Ghost by the seaside were wholly misleading. While the stunning scenery, smoke-filled rooms, and meta-references are all there, Ismael’s Ghosts is, quite literally, all over the place, taking us from prisons in Tajikistan, to solar observatories, to a film festival in Tel Aviv and a suburban farm in Paris.
For the second half, Desplechin tracks the protagonist’s failure to finish his semi-biographical spy movie, based on his estranged diplomat brother (another ghost of the title) – this film is, perhaps deliberately, a tedious bore. Desplechin, for the final hour or so, strips his picture of the two best things in it – Gainsbourg and Cotillard, who have hitherto anchored his script – for the sake of this sub-par, Pirandello-meets-John-Le-Carré spy caper. Using fish-eye lenses, a bizarre number of dissolves and a truly hammy score, it’s a colossal misstep; no wonder Ismael is having a breakdown in its making. Almaric does his best to sell his character’s downward spiral, but it grows exhausting to match his wild eyes after a while. This is not necessarily his fault, he’s working with a script that, out of the blue, dials the most ordinary scene up to 11, as though Desplechin has realised he needs to generate some tension.
This is the core problem with Ismael’s Ghosts, the premise has no life in it – it just keeps throwing up new events, new characters, new tangents scene after scene. Were the film just built around the seaside ménage-à-trois, there would be a rumpled, rambling joy to the whole thing. Instead, Gainsbourg and Cotillard are absent, and the immense talents of Alba Rohrwacher and Louis Garrel are wasted in the spy subplot, taping over the gaping holes in the main narrative with cellophane. They are also saddled with tortured dialogue. In the final scene, Gainsbourg breaks the fourth wall – it’s less as a way of Desplechin doing something new than as a desperate tactic to tie up the movie’s many nonsensical loose ends.
The most irksome aspect of this picture is what its director is desperate for critics to extrapolate from it. Any film about artists and their process teases out reflections on whether they are autobiographical – they become “contraptions, “Rubik’s cubes”, “postmodern statements on the creative process”. To be categorically clear, Ismael’s Ghosts is none of those things. Its portrait of an artist in exile has been done to death, with far more insight, clarity and gravity than Desplechin can muster. This shambolic mosaic of a film comes like a pasted-together missive to his mistresses, using tatty letters from the abandoned ideas drawer of his desk. A waste of its stunning cast, and the audience’s time, Ismael’s Ghosts is an overblown, over-long, wreck.
Ismael’s Ghosts is released nationwide on 1st June 2018.
Watch the trailer for Ismael’s Ghosts here: