Marion Cotillard’s talents are wasted in this sorry mess of a drama, which miserably ignores its female characters
French director Arnaud Desplechin tells a story that’s presumably close to home in ‘Ismaël’s Ghosts’, a heady and frenzied tale about a hedonistic, troubled Parisian filmmaker, Ismaël (Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric), who’s facing a pile-up of crises in his personal and professional lives. Ismaël’s many issues are eclipsed when his ex wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), walks back into his life 21 years after she disappeared off the face of the planet – just as he is finally moving on and settling into a newish relationship with his current love, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Darting about in time and tone, ‘Ismaël’s Ghosts’ switches between the present, with the reappearance of Carlotta, and two years earlier, when Ismaël and Sylvia first meet. Occasionally, it dips into a film-within-the-film, a drama about an unusual French spy (Louis Garrel), which Ismaël is shooting while the rest of his life is turning upside down (although any deeper links between the film’s two worlds are not obvious). Amalric’s way-over-the-top, shouty, furniture-smashing performance bluntly underlines Ismaël’s inner turmoil, although it’s never clear whether he’s supposed to be a tragic or comic figure. The film itself veers wildly between self-mockery and taking itself super-seriously.
Desplechin (‘A Christmas Tale’, ‘Kings and Queen’) is a meandering, loose-ends kind of filmmaker at the best of times, and ‘Ismaël’s Ghosts’ offers some captivating moments and seductive scenes. There’s some pleasure to be had, too, in trying to piece it all together and indulging the movie’s current of poetic energy, which masks a lack of logic and emotional truth. But the more its story unfolds, the more of a sorry mess this feels. The two women are particularly badly served: they feel more like tricks of Ismaël's mind than real characters – but perhaps that's the point. The details of Carlotta's disappearance and return are especially hard to swallow, and there’s one scene, in which Cotillard dances alone to Bob Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ while Gainsbourg looks on quietly, that might have you begging for the earth to open up and swallow you whole.
Cast and crew