'Ismael's Ghosts' ('Les fantomes d'Ismael'): Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festivai/Jean-claude lother why not productions
A literary, layered love triangle.

French auteur Arnaud Desplechin's latest, starring Marion Cotillard, Mathieu Amalric and Charlotte Gainsbourg, opened the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

For its 70th anniversary, the Cannes Film Festival has, very appropriately, chosen to open with a film by French auteur Arnaud Desplechin, a Cannes discovery whose feature debut, The Sentinel, played in competition exactly 25 years ago. And it is not only the festival that seems to be looking back, as the director’s latest, Ismael’s Ghosts (Les fantomes d’Ismael), feels like an attempt to forge a — modestly scaled, certainly — magnum opus of sorts, a narrative that is not necessarily fully comprehensible as a stand-alone item but which takes great pleasure in playing with all of the writer-director’s obsessions, themes and styles.

Despite a cast that includes 007 baddie Mathieu Amalric, Lars von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, the director's ninth fiction outing won’t be an easy sell for audiences unfamiliar with his more demanding films (his most successful work Stateside remains the relatively straightforward A Christmas Tale, which made over $1 million for IFC back in 2008). For Desplechin aficionados, however, there is so much to unpack here that this might just be the cinematic equivalent of Christmas morning. A longer director's cut, which adds about 20 minutes of new material, exists in addition to the theatrical version, which clocks in at under two hours.

The deliciously French expression acteur fétiche (“fetishized actor”) can certainly be applied to Amalric, for whom this is the seventh collaboration with Desplechin. Here, he actually gets to play a director from Roubaix, the hometown of the filmmaker. He is the titular Ismaël, who’s preparing a new feature and who’s been in an apparently quite happy relationship with the astrophysicist Sylvia (Gainsbourg) for about two years when we finally meet them in the film’s contemporary strand. (This is a dense maze of a narrative that nimbly hops back and forth between different locations and countries, between the past and the present and between stories and stories within stories.)

But significantly, the titular character is not in the first scene of his own film. Instead, Ismael’s Ghosts opens with an anxiously moving tracking shot and a dash of driving strings that suggests something major and high-stakes is about to unfold. We’re then introduced to Ivan (Louis Garrel) in a supple and entertaining sequence that combines character information, narrative surprises, some light humor and a delectable cameo by Jacques Nolot (offering a sly new variation on the Quai d’Orsay bureaucrat played by Andre Dussolier in Desplechin’s recent My Golden Days). It turns out that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs might want to recruit Ivan despite, or perhaps because of, his rather atypical background.

Indeed, bureaucracy, diplomacy and foreign affairs are recurring motifs in Desplechin’s films, though they are never abstract matters. From the lead of The Sentinel, who tried to figure out to whom that severed head from beyond the Iron Curtain belonged, to the “lost” passport in the USSR that gave birth to two identically named people in My Golden Days, Desplechin is clearly fascinated by how administrative matters, paperwork and international relations impact individuals and their sense of self. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that one of the pleasures of Ismael’s Ghosts is to discover how Ivan’s identity and his job are tied to Ismael, his profession and his sense of who he might be.

Another hiccup presents itself in the form of the narrative’s most literal ghost: the ominously named Carlotta (Cotillard). She was Ismael’s first great love some two decades earlier, then disappeared without a trace and was pronounced dead several years later. He’s still haunted by her, at least partially because her aging father (Laszlo Szabo) thinks nothing of calling Ismael in the middle of the night to chase his crushing loneliness.

When Carlotta suddenly shows up at Ismael’s beach cottage, it’s not surprising that Sylvia looks like she’s seen a ghost. Never afraid to infuse his dramas with genre elements, Desplechin here stages Ismael’s descent down a flight of the stairs, where Carlotta might be waiting for him after 18 years, like something out of a supernatural horror film.

The film was written by the director, regular co-scribe Julie Peyr and Lea Mysius (the latter’s directorial debut, Ava, screens in this year’s Critics’ Week sidebar). Their densely layered screenplay is a treasure trove of references to themes and even types of characters from some of the great classics and Desplechin’s own films, as well as in-jokes about the filmmaker’s own life and inner circle; Hippolyte Girardot pops up in a cameo as Ismael’s desperate producer, whom one supposes is probably modeled on producer Pascal Caucheteux.

The use of both dialogue and film language is sophisticated; sometimes Ismael’s Ghosts borders on overripe melodrama, while at other times it relies on genre tropes but then gives them an unexpected twist. The film’s various storylines wouldn’t hold together as well as they do if there weren’t an overarching theme that ties everything together, with Ismael’s Ghosts finally becoming a study about how our identities are constantly being shaped by outside forces that may forever be beyond our control, however much we try — and sometimes fail — to remain centered.

As in all of the director’s films, the acting is superb. Cotillard, who had a tiny role in Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument way back in 1996, has a mesmerizingly strange sequence in which her character reminisces about the years she spent away from Ismael that’s a small tour de force of sheer stage presence. Amalric is his reliable self here as a very driven character who tries to hide the fact that he’s constantly searching, while Gainsbourg fits right in alongside them. Alba Rohrwacher also makes a strong impression in the small role of Ivan’s paramour, who, like many of the others, doesn’t quite turn out to be the person she initially seemed to be.

Production company: Why Not Productions
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Garrel, Alba Rohrwacher, Laszlo Szabo, Hippolyte Girardot
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Screenplay: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr, Lea Mysius
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Vincent Maraval
Director of photography: Irina Lubtchansky
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting: Alexandre Nazarian
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
No rating, 114 minutes