‘Ismael’s Ghosts’ Review: Charlotte Gainsbourg Shines In An Otherwise Forgettable Cannes Opener

Arnaud Desplechin offers a fun, yet forgettable film to open the 70th Cannes Film Festival.
By  · Published on May 22nd, 2017

Arnaud Desplechin offers a fun, yet forgettable film to open the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

Opening the Cannes Film Festival is no easy feat. Festival audiences – critics especially – sit down for their first film with high expectations, excited for the films to come. Most recently, the opening night films have been a mixed bag. Last year, the festival presented Woody Allen’s Café Society, a sweet yet ultimately meandering ode to old Hollywood. Of course, there are always disasters, such as the 2014 opener Grace of Monaco. Debatably, there hasn’t been a great opener since 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom and Midnight in Paris the year before that. Unsurprisingly, yet disappointing nonetheless, the streak of mediocrity is left unbroken by Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts.

Desplechin most recently played Cannes in 2015 with the outstanding My Golden Days. A sequel to Desplechin’s breakout film My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, the film starred Mathieu Amalric as a neurotic academic looking back on his first love. Amalric has appeared in nearly all of Desplechin’s films, primarily playing different versions of the same character. In Ismael’s Ghosts, Amalric stars as Ismael Vuillard, a character who was last seen in Desplechin’s 2004 film King’s and Queen. Like Dedalus of My Sex Life and My Golden Days, Ismael is to be plagued by a woman he once loved.

Ismael’s Ghosts opens with a flashy, quick-cut, Broadway Danny Rose-type narrative. A group of men sits around a restaurant table and trade gossip in the life of Ivan (Louis Garrel). This narrative of narratives is revealed to be a film that Ismael is in the midst of directing. He has found success as a filmmaker and has recently entered into a healthy relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The two head to Ismael’s beach house during a break in filming, only to have their serenity interrupted by Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), Ismael’s wife. The stinger is that no one has seen Carlotta in twenty-one years, and she has been pronounced dead. Ismael is thrust into a manic state, conflicted by Carlotta’s decision to abandon both her husband and her father. His mania disrupts his relationship with Sylvia, the production of his film, and any proper reunion with Carlotta. Meanwhile, while Ismael seemingly begins to lose his mind, Carlotta and Sylvia start to build a complicated relationship of their own.

The ghost of the film’s title is, of course, Cotillard’s Carlotta. Essential in the evolution and disintegration of her surrounding characters, Carlotta remains a cipher. In a moment of exposition, Carlotta recounts her decades spent living on the streets, before she fell in love with an older Indian man who would eventually die, thus her return. Earlier in the film, in one of many heated conversations, Ismael states, “the present is shit.” Apparently, his obsession with the past is keeping him afloat – albeit barely – but when Carlotta returns, Ismael, and the film with him, falls off the rails. Gainsbourg’s fine performance as Sylvia is what moves the film while Amalric is allowed to take his commonly seen zany and neurotic qualities into overdrive. He goes mad, throwing the film into questionable territory.

Even as Ismael’s breakdown frustrates both his producer and his audience, there is much fun to be had in Ismael’s Ghosts. Small moments such as Cotillard’s Carlotta dancing along to Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and Ismael’s imposed visit to Sylvia’s apartment after a first date are delicious. These are just two examples of the beautiful –and beautifully French – moments that pervade the feature. The overwhelming Frenchness of Ismael’s Ghosts perhaps makes it the perfect film to open the Cannes Film Festival. It may not be great, but it does showcase powerhouse performances from some of France’s best actors. Simultaneously, it works as a mildly successful journey into the mind of one of the country’s most talented working filmmakers. Ismael’s Ghosts may not break the string of sub-par films to open Cannes, but it is nevertheless a fun, though forgettable, entry in Desplechin’s oeuvre.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.