Ismael’s Ghosts (Les fantômes d’Ismaël) is the latest offering from French director Arnaud Desplechin, where we follow the titular Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), who is in the midst of writing a film based around the life of his estranged diplomat brother Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). During the course of his work Ismael’s wife Carlotta Bloom (Marion Cotillard), who has been missing for twenty years and presumed dead, comes back into his life. Ismael, along with his new partner Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), wrestle to manage this shockwave through their lives as do their extended friends and family.
Ismael’s Ghosts is a multifaceted tale exploring; love, jealousy, reconciliation, storytelling and time. These numerous motifs are looked at through an extremely layered narrative. What is arguably the primary narrative of the film takes place in the present day wherein Carlotta returns from the dead. This leaves Ismael, Sylvia and Carlotta’s father Henri Bloom (László Szabó) to come to terms with the return of a woman they had presumed long dead and the effect this has on the lives they have built since. In addition we have a narrative taking place two years before Carlotta’s return wherein we see the meeting of Ismael and Sylvia and the beginnings of Ismael’s transformation from an angry, lost man to a calmer state of being. The final notable narrative shows us the imagined life of Ivan through the storytelling of Ismael’s script. Ismael suggests that his brother has been leading an exciting and exotic life, growing from shy young man to international spy.
Already we can see that the narrative layers of the film are numerous and complex, with each story intertwining with the others. Whilst multiple narratives are not an issue in themselves the merging from one to another is not always clear in Ismael’s Ghosts. The line between the present day and two years ago is particularly blurred. Desplechin makes an attempt to address this by making use of a fish-eye lense and printing ‘Two years ago’ on-screen when moving into Ismael and Sylvia’s meeting story. However, it is often unclear as to when we have moved from the past back into the present day. As such the visual techniques implemented end up being somewhat superfluous and seem little more than a gimmick. These techniques are used only a couple of times throughout the film and to be of any real assistance in distinguishing between narratives one feels that such visual aids should be implemented more regularly and consistently.
Furthermore, it transpires that what takes place in several of the narratives are something of a deception. The lifestyle that Ismael has created for his brother Ivan in his script is far from the truth. In addition Ismael creates numerous other falsehoods, primarily regarding his earlier life and his relationship to his brother and father. A similar issue arises with Carlotta who, whilst not an all-out liar in the way that Ismael can be, is very evasive with her story. Her reasons for having disappeared are extremely vague, seemingly being that she had a general distain for life at the time and so went away without knowing where she was going or for how long. Her reason for returning also comes across as somewhat contrived in that her new husband, who she met and lived with in India, has recently died and so she decides to swan back into the life she’d so offhandedly abandoned twenty years prior. How true Carlotta’s story is remains unclear throughout the film. Such lies and evasiveness create two issues. Firstly, it further confuses a film which is already hard to make sense of given the numerous and unclear narratives and timelines. Secondly, one can’t help but feel a sense of laziness in the writing in that all events take place when they do not out of any authentic reasoning but purely because it is convenient timing for the film’s tale.
In addition, the inconsistent use of visual aids in narrative transitioning is not the only filmic trope that feels misplaced within Ismael’s Ghosts. There are a couple of moments where Desplechin has character’s speak direct to camera. However, similarly to the narrative transitions this technique is used very sparsely and so jars with the otherwise traditional presentation of the film, where the audience is separated from the action on-screen. This becomes particularly noticeable when the film closes with Sylvia giving a monologue to the audience, largely about her brother Pierre, who has only been mentioned once earlier in the film. As such we are left feeling that the film closes in a matter ill-fitting with what we have just watched with far too much emphasis around a character (Pierre) who we do not know and so have no real care or frame of reference for.
These rather large issues all compile on top of the fact that the overall script is in itself rather bland. At times the dialogue between characters feels forced, with several of the discussions that take place not flowing in a way that one would expect from dialogue between people to in the real world. Ultimately the performances of the actors are solid, with Cotillard in particular providing Carlotta with a vulnerability and haunted nature that make the character intriguing despite her flawed backstory. Amalric also succeeds in bringing a genuine sense of anger and loss to Ismael, however due to the way he is written it is hard for the titular character be elevated much above the stereotype of a damaged, alcoholic, pill-popping writer.
Ultimately Ismael’s Ghosts is ambitious in its use of multiple narratives and timelines but falls very short in terms of consistency and coherence. It is a film that one comes away from feeling both confused and unsatisfied. This is further exacerbated by an inconsistent filmic style. The performances of the cast are strong and befitting of the characters but ultimately this is not enough to a save a film that is otherwise flawed in so many ways.
Ismael's Ghosts is out now.
Words by Jon Heywood @JonHeywood89.
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