A Film a Week - Ismaël's Ghosts / Les fantomes d'Ismaël

It is not hard to recognize a film by Arnaud Desplechin as it is set in his own universe full of recurring motives: first names like Ismaël, Ivan, Faunia and even Esther (here as a pseudonym), last names Vuillard and Dedalus, themes of diplomacy and espionage in the background, character motivation via broken family relations and loved-unloved son antics, manic pixie dream girls and mystery women popping out, locations of post-Soviet Tajikistan, different post-communist Eastern European capitols and Desplechin’s hometown of Roubaix. The trouble with Ismaël’s Ghosts is that the whole thing does not add up even with the structure of the film within a story about the title character (played by Desplechin regular Matthieu Amalric) trying to make one.

Ismaël Vuillard is a filmmaker in personal and professional crisis, trying to wrap up the film that honors his brother Ivan (almost unrecognisably short-haired Louis Garrel), a diplomat that he presents as an unintentional rockstar spy while battling the titular ghosts. One of them is his real-life brother, as we learn a regular Quai d’Orsay official in Ethiopia, and the other is his wife Carlota, the daughter of his friend and mentor Henri Bloom (László Szabó), a woman he married when she was very young who disappeared two decades ago. Troubled, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, pill-popping Ismaël is now in a relationship with intelligent, down to Earth astrophysicist and our occasional narrator Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but it does not help him with his nightmares. The sudden appearance of Carlota (played by delightful Marion Cotillard) trying to get her spouse back derails his life completely so he goes full in his dead great-aunt’s house in his hometown while his producer friend Zwy (legendary Hyppolite Girardot) is chasing him and his actress Faunia (Alba Rohrwacher) haunts him in his dreams...

It does not make much sense, does it? However, the reason Ismaël’s Ghosts was selected to open last year’s Cannes could not be clearer: with such stellar cast (in French context as well as global), it is really red carpet-friendly. The cast is probably the strongest reason that such a mess of ideas, recycled and under-developed, that pretends to be a film is still watchable, even in the re-edited, 20 minutes longer and tighter theatrical cut. (The festival version eluded me. Not sure if it is a bad thing, though.) And I thought that Michael Haneke’s Happy End was a bit off in the sense of blending the filmmaker’s earlier work together...

Still, Desplechin did whatever he was doing here with commendable style. The dialogue has overly melodramatic tones throughout, but does not feel over-written. The score composed of original and source material is superb. And all those dollies, zooms, double exposures and rear projections simulate mystery and add a layer of drama very well and show that Desplechin’s ideas on the technical level are concise even when the ones on the narrative level are not. And even there one can find some enjoyable bits and pieces.

In the end, maybe it is all autobiographical. Maybe he had to make this film to drive out his own ghosts. Certainly, it demands a re-watch, but I am not sure if it deserves it.

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