Ishmael’s Ghosts (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray/DVD / 2 Discs Ltd Ed. Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy)
Running Time: Theatrical Cut – 113 minutes approx / Director’s Cut – 134 minutes approx.
NB: This review is based on the Director’s Cut
No giant white whales for this particular Ishmael to tackle but maybe the events of the story would be easier to follow if there had been. Arnaud Desplechin takes the familiar theme of lost loves and unexpected returns and mashes them up with an esoteric and twist as one man’s sanity enters into a freefall of despair.
Ishmael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is a film director working on his latest film. His ex-father-in-law and mentor Henri Bloom (László Szabó) is still mourning the disappearance of his daughter and Ishmael’s wife Carlotta 21 years ago, so Ishmael helps Henri prepare for an upcoming retrospective of his films in Tel Aviv.
Needing to finish writing his film script in peace, Ishmael takes current girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) away to his beach house. Whilst there, Sylvia is approached by a woman claiming to be Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), Ishmael’s absent wife. Ishmael is shocked at seeing the woman declared dead a decade ago and struggles to deal with the fallout of her return.
Classic film fans will recall a similar plot to this one being the basis for two celebrated Hollywood comedies, 1940’s My Favourite Wife and 1963’s Move Over, Darling. The big difference between these films and Ishmael’s Ghosts is that we knew the former were comedies, whereas it is a little hard to tell what Desplechin is going for here – it’s clearly a testing drama but the surreal approach to the narrative clouds its intent.
As an example of this, the film opens with a group of Government ministers flitting from one private meeting to the next discussing someone named Dedalus. We then meet Ivan (Louis Garrel), the man in question and a narcoleptic special agent, but the way the footage is cut is very rushed, as if it was a film trailer or a TV drama series recapping the events of the previous episode.
This is because we are witnessing the film Ishmael is working, on bringing us up to date with his progress on the writing front. Perhaps you need to be an observant film buff or even a film make yourself to notice this jarring presentation, if not the fact it has nothing to do with the plot is a bigger giveaway. But this isn’t Desplechin being frivolous – Ivan is also the name of Ishmael’s younger brother, one of the titular ghosts and just one cog in the unstable mechanism that is Ishmael’s psyche.
Carlotta’s inexplicable arrival has echoes of a Hitchcockian drama in the making, not just through her sharing a main character name from Vertigo but also in suggesting what Rebecca might have been like if the eponymous first wife hadn’t died. True to form for someone suddenly returning from a two-decade absence, Carlotta’s explanation is barely sufficient, mostly enigmatic riddles ending with her marrying a man in India.
Shrouded in mystery but with a devious wink in her eye, Carlotta seems to want to pick up with Ishmael where she left off but that is difficult with Sylvia in the picture, but Ishmael is weak and three being a crowd means something has to give. This is the start of the painful unravelling of Ishmael’s mind which has a knock on affects on his work, putting the shoot behind schedule, bringing in line-producer Zwy (Hippolyte Girardot) to give Ishmael a kick up the backside.
Zwy’s arrival turns the third act into a comedic farce which is completely at odds with a concurrent subplot involving Henri being reunited with his daughter, a sobering piece of melodrama that deserves far more screen time than it gets. In fact, this applies to pretty much most of Carlotta’s story arc, given how she disappears for almost an hour and the story of her disappearance isn’t resolved to any satisfaction for the audience.
Instead we get a plenty of footage of the film Ishmael is making, which is very well shot and convincing enough for what it is but doesn’t further the story. I can only assume this was part of the material excised from the theatrical cut, along with another scene where Henri causes a disturbance on an aeroplane that also felt slotted in for no reason. Again this is frustrating as the truth about Ishmael’s relationship with Ivan surfaces late in the film and should hold a higher significance to the plot than it does.
There is sadly a lot to be frustrated about with this film, from the promise of the first act being sacrificed for indulgent and confused nonsense to subplots – and even main plots – being unresolved, driven by a scattershot and tonally random narrative. The frustration comes from what could have been given the fertile premise and the marquee cast who collectively give their all to their roles but individually seem to be in three different films.
Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg are two gems of French cinema but neither is given sufficient time to truly shine here. The screen time they do share together as polar opposites – the shy, demure Sylvia and the capricious, almost ethereal Carlotta – offers what amounts to a small tease of what this dynamic could have been in the hands of these two fine actresses.
Ultimately, this descends into what feels like a showcase for Mathieu Amalric, which is hardly coincidental as he is a longstanding collaborator of Desplechin, but the benefits are Amalric understands the director and can give him what he wants. This shows in his delirious, manic but always on point essaying of Ishmael‘s catastrophic mental collapse, which Amalric’s naturally weathered appearance is practically made for.
By the time Ishmael’s Ghosts staggers confusingly to its abrupt ending, we wonder if it was Desplechin himself suffering the breakdown, seemingly hell bent on sabotaging what should have been a great film. Perhaps the theatrical cut is more coherent; either way the audience is left to piece the best bits together themselves to make the most from this disjointed affair.
French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
French 2.0 LCPM Stereo
Interview with director Arnaud Desplechin
Interview with star Marion Cottilard
Interview with star Charlotte Gainsbourg
Limited Edition Blu-ray only: Theatrical Cut and Director’s Cut
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ***
Man In Black