Ismael's Ghosts (2 stars)

Ismael's Ghosts

Apparent prestige gives way to self-indulgence in a confusing and unconvincing French drama

Ismael's Ghosts has all the trappings of a prestigious French drama. Chosen to open the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, it marks the seventh collaboration between director Arnaud Desplechin and actor Mathieu Amalric and boasts a stellar cast led by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it happens.

Desplechin offers a deliberately jumbled narrative, blurring fact and fantasy as he tells the tale of anguished filmmaker Ismael (Amalric). It is more than 21 years since his wife Carlotta (Cotillard) vanished without a trace. Ismael, and Carlotta's father Henri (László Szabó) have spent the time grieving her loss and coming to terms with the fact that they may never know what happened to her.

Struggling to finish a film inspired by the helter-skelter life of his diplomat (possibly spy) brother Ivan (Louis Garrel), Ismael meets astrophysicist Sylvia (Gainsbourg). It is the beginning of a meaningful relationship that proceeds quite happily until the day a strange woman walks towards Ismael's beach house claiming to be Carlotta.

There are intriguing echoes of Hitchcock's Vertigo – from a lush score strongly reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's work, to the character of Carlotta. The basic plot also has elements of Blithe Spirit (minus the farce), as Ismael is tormented by the ghosts of his past.

It is all very polished and well-crafted but grows increasingly hysterical and unconvincing. The multi-layered, non-linear, film-within-a-film approach to the narrative becomes confusing and pushes the film towards parody. The explanation for Carlotta's lengthy disappearance and current circumstances never chimes with the glamorous, glowing figure embodied by Cotillard. In the end, it all feels too much of a self-indulgence to take seriously.

Selected release from Fri 1 Jun.

Ismael's Ghosts

  • 2 stars
  • 2017
  • France
  • 1h 54min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
  • Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg
  • UK release: 1 June 2018

Ismael (Amalric)’s wife Carlotta (Cotillard) vanished 21 years ago, and he’s now in a relationship with Sylvia (Gainsbourg), but then Carlotta mysteriously returns. A polished and well-crafted but increasingly hysterical and unconvincing jumble of a film, which takes layers and meta-ness to levels of unconscious…

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