In independent film, more times than not less is more.
Someone forgot to tell Arnaud Desplechin this as his overly ambitious, star studded Ismaël’s Ghosts is a bit too complex and scattered to work as a concise narrative.
Within the first half hour Desplechin attempts to interweave espionage, a resurrection and a filmmaker’s mid-project crisis into once succinct storyline. The result is unfortunate as you quickly find yourself lost within the details, fixated on the common denominator as you attempt to decipher the broad strokes and make sense of the mess.
Ismael’s Ghosts begins within the confines of a film, as imagined by its main character: a high octane spy thriller that centers around a young recruit, Louie Garrel’s Ivan. But minutes later Desplechin pulls out, revealing a broader universe in which our film’s main character, a screenwriter, struggles to work out a complex screenplay. Still haunted by the sudden disappearance of his wife 20 years ago, Mathieu Amalric’s Ismael has presumed her dead, attempting to move on while still caring for her ailing father.
But things aren’t as they seem as Ismael’s late wife (Marion Cotillard) shows up on the beach one day, eager to return to the world still troubled by her unexpected departure. Cotillard is by far the best of the bunch, offering up stellar interactions with both Amalric and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Her ability to express so much emotion while doing so litter is a testament to her characterization, giving the convoluted film a backbone on which to stand.
But Cotillard can only do so much as the film falls victim to itself, unable to pick a genre, thus coming off as a hodgepodge of individual scenes that just so happen to star the same actors. Gainsbourg’s Sylvia is nearly forgotten during the second act as Ismael’s actions take center stage, something that would likely work in a different, controlled environment, but spins out of control quickly here.
Desplechin’s last ditch effort to stir up some laughs (and ultimately save his movie) fall short as viewers have long since checked out of the chaotic, disjointed film. And who can blame them? The film fails to connect, leaving those who originally opted for the journey behind as it attempts to piece together a series of good ideas to mass failure.
Ismaël’s Ghosts takes its viewers for granted, using them as it attempts to make something out of nothing. It’s disconnected, incomplete, and to be frank, an unneeded story (or group of) that’s downfall lies within itself as it attempts to trick you into thinking there is something more lying under the top layer. I’ll save you the trouble - there isn’t.