Abstract Narratives

Veteran French director Arnaud Desplechin returns with Ismael’s Ghosts, one of the more dense and difficult films of his long career. The film, which opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, has a semi-autobiographical feel, as any movie about a filmmaker will clearly have. His regular star, Mathieu Amalric plays Ismael, a director who is about to start shooting a new feature when he’s left dumbstruck by a ghost from his past.

Out of nowhere, his former lover Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), returns after a two-decade absence, after she disappeared without trace and was pronounced dead long ago. Needless to say, her arrival causes issues for Ismael and his new lover, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Cue outpourings of melodrama, as Ismael collapses under the weight of these events whilst trying to manage his latest production – an espionage movie.

Elements from this film-within-the-film are gracefully cut into the narrative. Here, Louis Garrel plays a secret agent named Ivan Dedalus (whose surname is shared with a character Amalric has played in three earlier Desplechin films, My Golden Days, A Christmas Tale and My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument; the interweaving of the director’s earlier work go further, with Amalric’s character Ismael a variation on the one he played in 2004’s Kings and Queen).

In truth, the film has a number of roots in dire need of pruning; ideas that sprout wildly across an abstract narrative that never really take hold. It’s chaotic at times – to the point where Ismael even pulls a gun to dispatch one character in a moment that feels as if his world is colliding with the fictions of his movies. Of course, a story about the creator imploding reminds us of Federico Fellini’s , a film that has surely influenced Desplechin (and many others).

Ismael’s Ghosts doesn’t have the brilliance to be on a par with that Italian masterpiece, despite making use of a cast that dips into the best of French cinema. Sadly, not one from Gainsbourg, Garrel, Amalric or Cotillard is at their best here in a film that is more incoherent than it is inspired. While the UK release is the 135-minute director’s cut – longer than the version shown in Cannes – this rather feels like prolonging an already troubled experience.

Ismael’s Ghosts opens on 1 June. For more details, click here.

1. Still from Ismael’s Ghosts (Les Fantomes d’Ismael).