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

Disappointment, “Ismael’s Ghosts” is not the near-perfect film that “My Golden Days,” which screened at Cannes last year, was. Desplechin’s new film, which launched this year’s Cannes Film Festival this morning (Cannes is celebrating seventy this year) is sketchy and brutal and impertinent and camp. It has some grand, theatrical dialogue (and it works well), like its predecessor from last year, 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” gave a very American portrayal of youth, the levity and irreverence of adolescence clashing with the social and historical context of the time (late sixties France was in a great time of upheaval) and the constraints imposed on adolescents by the adults, narratives about relationships and love and chaos. That film was a thing. I still remember the atmosphere in the Palais Stephanie where “Days” screened, one of pure jubilation. Underwhelming more aptly describes the reception to “Ismael’s Ghosts” this morning.
Did Desplechin try and replicate the same formula as “Days” with “Ismael’s Ghosts”, the one in which he juxtaposes personal histories and overly confident characters with memorable lines of dialogue, while throwing a sack of odd narrative threads (questions of identity, lineage, travel, spies, people disappearing and reappearing) at them? Possibly, yes, but what worked with young, unknown actors like Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Leroy-Collinet, both of whom are very young and came off as gifted and natural, to accomplish superbly entertaining and generous filmmaking, 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 Escherian sleight of hands, 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, and he’s married to Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a more settled and civilized person than he.
A second narrative opens up, close on the heels of “Golden Days” (the two films hold 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 his usual forlorn self, 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 and he 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 spouse.
The resulting film is ambitious, generously personal (and personally generous) and crowded with scandalized people but, barring the lasting pleasures of seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard together on screen, with the latter entering, in my opinion, into the Cannes legend by performing a dance, it is also an unequal and incoherently-executed film. Desplechin, one of France’s most vital auteurs, bit off more than he could chew. “Ismael’s Ghosts” touches on some meaty concepts but barely scratches the surface.