“Ismael’s Ghosts” – Not very haunting [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Ismael’s Ghosts,” Arnaud Desplechin’s latest attempt to create a philosophical legacy, is an unholy mess with either too many or too few messages.
Gifted with an extraordinary cast of internationally acclaimed actors — Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the incomparable Marion Cotillard — Desplechin embroils them in a complicated scenario that he believes is complexity itself. Complicated and complex are not, as it turns out, the same thing.
Ismael, a film director on the verge of a breakdown, is in the process of directing a personal film he has written, ostensibly about an autodidact foreign service worker/spy loosely based on the characteristics of his estranged brother. Ismael’s motivations are complicated (again, not particularly complex) as he has been estranged from his family for many years, having been expelled at the age of 11 for unknown transgressions. In his film within this film, he has imbued his brother with far more depth, mystery, and importance than he actually possesses; but then films are the stuff that dreams are made of if Ismael, or more particularly Desplechin, were Shakespearean in talent rather than just in his own mind.
But there’s more. Ismael has been mourning the loss of his childhood sweetheart Carlotta who was briefly his wife until she abruptly disappeared. Into his life, Sylvia has recently appeared and has been instrumental in his healing process. Then out of the past, much like in a bad film noir of the 50s, Carlotta reappears after 21 years of absence, upsetting the balance that Ismael has recently gained. Sylvia, unable to cope with the ghosts of Ismael’s past life, walks out, leaving him to the opportunistic Carlotta. Complicated, not complex.
Ismael is at a loss (as is the viewer) as to what to do, so, logically, he abruptly (most of the action is abrupt) disappears from the set where his film is shooting, leaving everyone in the lurch so he can try to find what he has lost.
Clearly Desplechin makes very personal films, but so personal that the viewer has a hard time finding a way in. There is no doubt in my mind why he was able to attract such extraordinary actors to this film. At various, and often incongruous or meaningless moments, each actor has been given at least one brilliant monologue, usually apropos of nothing in particular, that gives him or her a César (the French equivalent of the Oscar) moment. These monologues, combined with other pretentious allusions scattered throughout the film (why else the obscure references to characters from James Joyce novels), lead one to believe that Desplechin believes himself to be a philosopher or at the very least, a philosopher filmmaker out to impress with a sense of his own importance. Needless to say, I was not impressed.
As mentioned previously, the actors are wonderful. Mathieu Amalric as Ismael relishes his role and attacks it as a hungry dog would a juicy bone. The award-winning actor of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he has been in six previous Desplechin films for which he has won two César awards. Marion Cottilard as Carlotta and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Sylvia are equally good. When they share screen time they transcend the film, the one ethereal and sly (Cottilard) and the other earthy and real (Gainsbourg). Laszlo Szabo as Henry Bloom, the Hungarian actor, writer, director, given little to do other than mourn the disappearance of his daughter Carlotta, is still a formidable presence in the film.
This, in all likelihood, is a film only the French could make and appreciate. My taste in French films is wide and enthusiastic but philosophical pretentiousness is a clear line in the sand for me. I’ve seen Desplechin films before and, as is often the cases, I should have known. This is billed as the “Director’s Cut,” leading one to wonder if the previous cut might have made more sense; at the least, it would have been mercifully shorter.
In French with English subtitles.
Opening Friday April 6 at the Laemmle Royal and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.