Ismael’s Ghosts (2017)

Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts is an abstract, at times melodramatic, interweaving of nightmare, filmmaking, fiction and reality.

Creative nightmare

by Alexa Dalby

Ismael’s Ghosts

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Mathieu Almaric is dishevelled film director Ismael Vuillard, who comes from the same home town in northern France as director Arnaud Desplechin – Roubaix. It becomes clear that both films, the one we are watching and the one being made, are very personal and self-referential.

Ismael is making an uncompelling film based on the life of his brother Ivan (Louis Garrel), who may or may not be a spy. He’s holed up at his beach house trying to write it and possibly has shot, or just imagined, some scenes from it. Alba Rohrwacher has a supporting role as Ivan’s wife, who is not what she appears to be, and there’s a cameo by Jacques Delot as a bureaucrat in France’s diplomatic service.

Ismael’s wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard, but even she can’t save the film), who mysteriously deserted him 21 years earlier and has been presumed dead, reappears suddenly out of the blue on the beach at his holiday cottage. Is she real or a figment of his imagination? She disrupts his current relationship with astrophysicist Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Ismael’s writing of his current film. He becomes so deranged that he abandons it, disappears and he has to be tracked down by his desperate producer.

There ensues much overwrought overturning of furniture, shouting, unwise drinking of wine early in the morning and a lot of waking nightmares. Desplechin intercuts between two stories and varied places (France, Tajikistan, Prague) brutally and almost haphazardly as each lurches along an unsatisfying trajectory. Lines are blurred and nothing rings true.

Deep down, and confusingly, Ismael’s Ghosts may touch on the ever-present spectres from the past of emotional baggage, such as lost love, their creative bearing on writer’s block and the madness inherent in creating a work of art. But despite enjoying a classy cast, it’s not one of the director’s most successful works, either in reality or fiction.

Ismael’s Ghosts premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival and is released on 1 June 2018 in the UK.

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