Desplechin’s underwhelming “Ismael’s Ghosts” opens up CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

A messy film
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marion Cotillard and Mathieu Amalric
Directed by Arnaud Desplechins

I was disappointed that “Ismael’s Ghosts” hadn’t turned out to be the near-perfect film that “My Golden Days,” which screened at the Cannes Festival last year, was. Arnaud Desplechin’s new film, which opened this year’s festival (Cannes celebrates seventy this year) is sketchy and brutal, chaotic and annoyingly camp. On the good side the characters speak impressive, theatrical-like lines, like in “Days,” memorable lines, like, “I will rip your mask off and make a prince out of you.” But Desplechin covers too much ground and it shows.

“My golden days” delivered a moving portrayal of the levity and irreverence of adolescence, watching American movies, anxiously following the events of the Vietnam war, confronting new and old ideas of an ideal society to the social and historical context of the time (late sixties France was going through a time of great upheaval) facing the constraints imposed by adults. That film was an event in Cannes last year. I remember the atmosphere in the Palais Stephanie where “Days” screened, it was one of pure jubilation. But “Ismael’s Ghosts” was underwhelming.

Did Desplechin attempt to replicate the same formula he used in “Days” to “Ismael’s Ghosts”? The one in which he juxtaposes personal histories, flashbacks, and gives overly confident characters memorable lines of dialogue while throwing an odd mix of narrative threads (questions of identity, lineage, travel, spies, people disappearing and reappearing) at them? Possibly, yes, but what worked with very young, unknown actors like Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Leroy-Collinet, both of whom came off as gifted and natural just doesn’t jive as well with established actors the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marion Cotillard and Mathieu Amalric and a script that zigs and zags, slows down and accelerates without much rhyme or reason. It’s as if Desplechin infantilizes his actors in this here film, they come off as unconvincing, or overly done, or slightly artificial, depending on who it was.

In an Escher-like manner the film is driven by two, at first parallel, narratives that become entwined in surprising ways. Ismael (Amalric) is a film director, working on an ongoing film shoot. He’s also a workaholic who stumbles through life with a bottle of strong scotch in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other. He’s a mad poet, a bon vivant who’s married to quiet homebuddy Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

A second narrative opens up on the heels of “Golden Days” (the two films really do have some things in common) that of French secret agent Ivan Daedalus (played by a Louis Garrel who really doesn’t look or feel the part), who at first is missing in action somewhere in the world but is later found. A real man of mystery, this Ivan, but Garrel looks forlorn, one of France’s greatest actors, and doesn’t manage to make his mark, the Daedalus character a very handsome papier-mâché figure. The ghosts of the film are one ghost, in fact, Carlotta Bloom (Cotillard), Ismael’s wife who, twenty years earlier, boarded a Lyon-bound train from Paris and disappeared. After marrying an Indian man in New Delhi who mysteriously keels over she goes back to Ismael to attempt to pick up where they left, that which shan’t go over well with the new lady of the house.

The resulting film is ambitious and generously personal but, barring the pleasures of seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard together on screen and hearing some wonderful dialogues “Ghosts” is also an unequal and incoherently-executed film. “Ismael’s Ghosts” touches on some meaty concepts but barely scratches the surface, Desplechin biting more than he could chew.