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Ismael’s Ghosts (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Ismael’s Ghosts


Starring Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Garrel, Alba Rohrwacher, Laszlo Szabo, Hippolyte Girardot, Jacques Nolot, Catherine Mouchet, Samir Guesmi, Mélodie Richard, Marc Prin, Bruno Todeschini, Pascal Ternisien, Philippe Fretun and Bernard Bloch.

Screenplay by Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr and Lea Mysius.

Directed by Arnaud Desplechin.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 114 minutes. Not Rated.

Screened at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Okay, here is a conundrum that moviegoers periodically have to deal with: Is it better to see a truly bad film or a movie that starts off really well and then just completely goes off the rails?

I’m not sure, but part of me does think that it’s better to know up front that a movie is bad, rather than to be teased by quality before seeing it all go awry.

French director Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film Ismael’s Ghosts starts off as a smart and intriguing thriller, but somewhere along the line, it just loses the plot. It becomes overly complicated, overly convoluted. The entire last hour is difficult to understand. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, I have loved some very inscrutable films. But by the time you come to the denouement here, you’ve pretty much given up on trying figure the thing out.

Had Ismael’s Ghosts ended about 45 minutes in, it would have been a pretty good movie. Instead, I walked out of the screening wondering: “What the hell was that?”

And this screening, at the Philadelphia Film Festival, was of the film’s extended director’s cut. If this is what Desplechin feels is the ideal version of the movie, I can only imagine what the cut-down theatrical version was like. Although, maybe it would be a little less confusing and confounding.

It’s a shame, because like I said, it had a great setup. It also features a terrific cast. And, frankly, despite this film, I feel that Desplechin is a good director. (My Sex Life was fantastic.) So why was Ismael’s Ghosts so unsatisfying?

The basic storyline is simple and fascinating. Mathieu Amalric plays filmmaker Ismael Vuillard, an emotionally damaged artiste who has never completely come to terms with the disappearance and apparent death of his wife, Carlotta, 20 years earlier. He has a co-dependent relationship with Carlotta’s father Henri Bloom (László Szabó), an older acclaimed director who is still in active mourning, but who is Ismael’s friend and mentor. Ismael feels protective and responsible for the older man.

There is also some vague subplot about Ismael’s brother Ivan (Louis Garrel), who may be a spy, but definitely has been pretty much out of touch for a matter of years. However, this distance has not stopped Ismael from plotting to make his next film a loose adaptation of his brother’s life.

Ismael is finally becoming balanced enough to throw himself into a new relationship. He meets a beautiful, sweet, complicated woman named Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). After some hesitation on both parts, they become deeper and deeper involved. Things are going so well that she comes when he goes down to a beach house to work on his film. They are happy together, enjoying living together.

Everything seems to be coming together perfectly. Until, of course, it no longer does.

One day, while sunning on their private beach, Sylvia is approached by a woman who claims to be Carlotta (Marion Cotillard). She looks like the old painting of Carlotta that Ismael still hangs in his apartment. Even Ismael, who hasn’t seen her since she was a teenager, can’t tell for sure if it is her, though she does look very much like an older version of his wife, and she does seem to know some things that only Carlotta should know.

However, “Carlotta” will only give very vague explanations about what she has been doing the past 20 years, and she refuses to explain exactly why she disappeared, or why she never contacted him. She is also very inscrutable about why she was coming back at this particular time. But she does tell Sylvia that she plans on winning her husband back.

Great setup, right?

Too bad it all starts falling apart around this point. Desplechin has lit himself a nice flame, but then he pours lighter fluid on it, burning down the entire structure.

Ismael’s Ghosts is definitely more disappointing because it gives the audience high hopes, before pulling the rug out. Sure, sometimes things get out of control, but eventually it seems like Desplechin is purposely playing with his audience, raising the tempos and craziness until we finally have to succumb to his fever dream, or just cry “Uncle.”

Well, okay. Uncle. I give up. I wanted to like Ismael’s Ghosts, but honestly, I’m mainly disappointed by it. Maybe the original theatrical cut is easier to figure out, but I rather doubt it. The movie turns out to be a massive mind fuck, and sadly not in the good way.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 23, 2017.

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