Not the kind of ghost story I would expect this close to Halloween.
Last Friday, I was treated to a screening of Ismael’s Ghosts at the 55th New York Film Festival. The main character of this film is a screenwriter named Ismael (Mathieu Amalric). Twenty years ago, Ismael’s young and attractive wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), disappeared, hasn’t been heard from since, and is presumed dead. Ismael has since managed to move on, finding love with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a young astrophysicist.
Ismael and Sylvia are now living together, and Ismael has been working on his latest screenplay. Out of nowhere, Carlotta shows up at their house, much to the couple’s utter shock. Carlotta explains that she had to leave Ismael for reasons unclear, and decided to return to Ismael after her latest husband passed away. Her presence in the house causes friction between the couple, resulting in Sylvia leaving, despite Ismael’s assurance that he is over his past love for Carlotta. To the surprise of no one, Ismael does still harbor feelings for Carlotta, and is tempted to go back with her after Sylvia leaves. Continuing to struggle to get his screenplay finished, and conflicted over choosing between Carlotta and Sylvia, Ismael will experience one of the most overwhelming moments of his life.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that Ismael’s screenplay is based on his brother, Ivan, who works as a diplomat. The intro of the film shows a group of people talking about Ivan and the dangerous missions he has been on and the skills that he is best known for. We also see Ivan getting married to a woman he barely knows, and getting caught in the middle of a foreign conflict. All of this is being incorporated into Ismael’s screenplay, which is being produced by Henri, who just happens to be Corlotta’s father. How do all of these side stories fit in with the main plot? I honestly don’t know.
The film’s biggest problem is how co-writer/director Arnauld Desplechin fails to tie these different stories together in a coherent manner. Now, this could work if the audience was able to see how Ismael’s emotions are transforming his writing process. This idea, however, is not made clear, as the introduction throws so much information at the audience, that you don’t know where to get invested. And this, unfortunately, does not improve over the course of the film. It feels like all of this only makes sense in the director’s head.
Not only is the story all over the place, but so is the film’s tone. For example, in one scene, Ismael is shown throwing an over-the-top fit of rage at Carlotta for leaving him, and then shortly after, he is making love to her. I suppose you could apply this abrupt change to Ismael’s descent into insanity given the situation, but the film does not exactly have a solid plot to support it, and doesn’t even have a clear ending. Though the actors are mostly competent throughout the film, they are not able to save the story or even make it entertaining to watch. Even Marion Cotillard, who is a gem on screen, is a constant enigma, which is frustrating after a while, although she does have an emotionally effective scene with Henri.
Ismael’s Ghosts is one of those films that is more complicated than it needs to be, resulting in a hodgepodge of a story. I suppose that there is at least one thing interesting to take away from it, in that some people can never get over past relationships, and that living in the past can badly influence the present, but there could have been a more interesting and entertaining way to get this message across. Although Desplechin attempted to blend all of these complicated stories together into an interesting story, in the end, it is just too overly complicated.