There is the promise of three or four good movies in Ismael’s Ghosts, but in trying to meld so many potentially interesting narrative ideas into one, director Arnaud Desplechin has ultimately produced something that lacks cohesiveness and overstays its welcome without ever offering any kind of resolution to anything. There is certainly nothing straightforward in this story, or the way it is told, but the structure is so disjointed that it is difficult to make an emotional investment in any of the characters. Both the title character and the film itself veer off the rails with tonal switches between comedy, mystery and tragedy and, whilst there are a few stylish touches and a talented cast, the film ultimately fails to deliver the level of clever sophistication that you suspect Desplechin intended.
The dishevelled Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) is a film director whose wife Carlotta vanished some 20 years earlier. Having spent 10 years searching for her, he was forced to declare her dead but remains haunted by unresolved feelings of loss, as does her father Henri (László Szabó) a film maker who has been a mentor and father-figure to Ismael. Now entrenched in a relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Ismael is currently drafting a script for a new movie about a diplomat-cum-spy named Ivan, scenes from which are dramatised on screen to represent what Ismael is writing, with Louis Garrel (who played Jean-Luc Goddard in the superior Redoubtable) as the mysterious Ivan. The movie-within-a-movie trope has been executed to much better effect plenty of times before in both dramatic and comedic incarnations (Adaptation, Boogie Nights, Bowfinger…) and here it only serves to distract from the core narrative arc, which is the sudden reappearance of Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) and the upheaval that follows.
One of the finest actors on the planet, as her work in the likes of La Vie en Rose, Rust and Bone and Two Days, One Night attests, Cotillard is criminally wasted as Carlotta. We get snippets of information about what her life has been during the period of her absence (such as her marriage in India to a man whose death ultimately sent her scurrying back home) but she never offers an explanation for why she left and expects that the marriage will just pick up from where it (she) left off all those years ago. There is so much potential for a good story in her disappearance and certainly some insights into her experiences would have made her a more much interesting character and perhaps even given something for Cotillard to sink her teeth into. Very prolific in his home country and having also appeared in the likes of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Quantum of Solace, Amalric is initially sympathetic as a man who had finally resigned himself to the certainty of Carlotta’s disappearance, only for her re-emergence to trigger a new wave of emotional discord. Gainsbourg is good as Sylvia, a quiet, conservative type who falls in love with Ismael despite the fact that he becomes increasingly insufferable. It seems as though being talented forgives Ismael his peculiarities and melodramatic tendencies.
The mystery surrounding Carlotta’s disappearance and the emotional scars it left on both Ismael and Henri is so potent that it becomes increasingly frustrating every time the film veers off course; these detours pushing it well beyond a two hour running time without ever offering any real resolution to anything, the ending coming as a piece-to-camera from Gainsbourg as Sylvia, simply telling us what happens, as if to suggest that even the director had come to the realization that the film was meandering aimlessly. Co-written by Desplechin with Julie Peyr and Léa Mysius (whose recent directorial debut Ava is very good coming-of-age drama set on the Atlantic Coast of France), Ismael’s Ghosts is an unwieldy and self-indulgent piece of cinema weighed down by excessive subplots and narrative digressions that only serve to diminish the depth with which Desplechin can explore the central narrative premise.