Cannes 2017: Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismaël’s Ghosts

“For its 70th anniversary,” begins Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter, “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 twenty-five years ago. And it is not only the festival that seems to be looking back, as the director’s latest, Ismaël’s Ghosts (Les fantômes d’Ismaël), 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.”

At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang suggests that “Desplechin is a prolific but uneven filmmaker: his last Cannes title, My Golden Days, was a delight; his previous feature, Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, was a meandering indulgence. Ismael’s Ghosts is a curiously, in-the-moment watchable amalgam of all his best and worst tendencies: a film of so many different personalities it feels like several different films inexplicably spliced together.”

But for Screen’s Lisa Nesselson,Ismaël’s Ghosts “exudes the lived-in familiarity of a director who knows his characters inside out and the daring and panache of a creator whose creations are still full of surprises, even for him. If you’re going to name a protagonist Carlotta and help yourself to some Bernard Hermann music, you’d better be out to entertain with a sure hand. Desplechin delivers with flying colors thanks to an excellent cast and a sometimes serious, sometimes funny story that never lets up or becomes predictable.”

“A self-absorbed, nightmare-besotted director (played by Mathieu Amalric) is literally haunted by his past when his wife, presumed dead for 21 years, unexpectedly reappears midway through his latest production,” explains Variety’s Peter Debruge, who’s far less impressed: “As phony emotional showcases go, this one’s full of unintentionally comedic melodrama, rivaling cult favorite The Room at times as Amalric (reprising his role as the chronically unstable Ismael Vuillard from Kings and Queen) overturns furniture and heatedly berates Marion Cotillard (as the wife who walked out on him) before making sweaty love to her. Meanwhile, in another storyline, Ismael courts, then abandons, then ultimately impregnates his new flame, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), described as an astrophysicist with her ‘head in the stars,’ all while struggling to make what comes across as world’s least interesting spy movie.”

That spy movie focuses on Ivan, played by Louis Garrel. At the A.V. Club, A. A. Dowd finds that “the film gradually drifts away from its central love triangle, disappearing into more scenes from the film-within-a-film and exploring Ismaël’s tortured creative process. To say that Desplechin loses the thread would only be partially accurate. It’s more like he lights the thread on fire like a fuse. Thing is, digressions have always been a key tenet of this particular filmmaker’s messy, side-winding, novelistic work. Given the potential charge of the central story, it’s a little disappointing to see Ismaël’s Ghosts careen off in several divergent directions. But the deluge of flashbacks and anecdotal asides are part of what make Desplechin’s movies, at their cluttered best, so singularly delightful.”

“This is an unfinished doodle of a film,” finds the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “a madly self-indulgent jeu d’esprit without substance: a sketch, or jumble of sketches, a ragbag of half-cooked ideas for other movie projects, I suspect, that the director has attempt to salvage and jam together.”

Jada Yuan for Vulture: “Whatever faults the rest of the film has (it’s essentially four movies: the love triangle, the fast-paced spy thriller that Ismaël is shooting, the behind the scenes of Ismaël’s nervous breakdown during production, and some meta nonsense) the parts with Cotillard and Gainsbourg are the perfect embodiment of the French values that won out in the recent election. Empathy. Acceptance. Lack of judgment. The belief in the inherent goodness of people, and the need to let them make their own decisions. The two actresses have never been in a film together, but they cede the floor to one another with a mutual respect, just bringing it in every scene.”

“Amalric’s longstanding affiliation with Desplechin is one of those elegantly in-step actor-director relationships that brings out the best in both parties,” finds the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “and when the film spins off in another unexpected direction, sidelining both women to focus on Ismael’s clashes with his producer Zwy (Hippolyte Girardot), the actor takes his character’s breakdown to comically manic extremes—while the film he’s supposed to be working on also plays out on screen, seemingly blithely unaware of its creator’s torment.”

For Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa, this is a “patchwork where the filmmaker’s exegeses meet a thousand references to his previous films that he, nevertheless, enlivens with a new spirit—more entertaining, sometimes even ‘comic,’ a sort of distanced viewing of the clash between the darkness of human force fields and the feelings that he has always excelled in portraying through instinctive bursts that shatter through the intellectuality of his cinema.”

Reviewing Ismaël’s Ghosts in Spanish: Mónica Delgado (desistfilm) and Diego Lerer.

There are two cuts of the film, by the way, one twenty minutes longer than the other. As Ramin Setoodeh reports for Variety, “Magnolia Pictures, which is distributing the film in the United States, still hasn’t decided which version to show.”

Updates, 5/18: “The entire film is summarized by the third-last dialogue of the character played by Charlotte,” Desplechin tells Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa: “‘My life came to me.’ The imperfect, unexpected, sometimes brutal life like Marion’s character, in disarray like the one portrayed by Mathieu, or like a young man who comes out of his shell and blossoms by traveling across the world like the character played by Louis Garrel. But I also think that the last dialogue of the film: ‘more, more, more’ says it all—more life, more stories, more sex, more love, more disorder.”

“Desplechin’s movies are often praised for their wonderfully lived-in messiness, and for a while Ismaël’s Ghosts seems to fit that inspired pattern,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “But then the thing derails and becomes, shall we say, the wrong kind of mess. . . . More fatally, the romantic triangle at the movie’s center never becomes sufficiently engaging to warrant all this fussy ornamentation.”

Ismaël’s Ghosts is brash and confident,” grants Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook, “but also flawed and deeply frustrating; its sense of humor, especially, often lands with a merciless thud. . . . But there’s also a richness of imagination that’s impossible to dismiss, Desplechin’s constant formal reinvention mirroring his characters’ struggles to make sense of their own pasts, their way of coping with the present by continually creating themselves anew.”

“Desplechin’s filmmaking feels like it draws its energy from poetry and music as much as it does literature and film history,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “This winding, indulgent film has involved verses and then, suddenly, a soaring emotional chorus, and then there’s a noodly bridge section and then an off-kilter harmony segueing in from the secondary plot-strand. There’s a moment where two characters wax analytical about Jackson Pollock’s painting, Lavender Mist, specifically the biographical details hidden within the unformed pastel blotches. Maybe this is the director giving himself an out, assuring that there is conventional form to this wild tale, you just have to search for it.”

“In the ultimate copout, Gainsbourg’s Sylvia gets the job of explaining how it all turns out, facing the camera to narrate how the loose ends of Ismael’s life come together,” notes Barbara Scharres at “As the lights came up I gleefully anticipated boos, but the crowd left in stunned silence. ‘It left us too catatonic to boo,’ a colleague explained.”

More in French from ARTE’s Olivier Père.

“A film that features what may be more than two dozen utterances of the phrase ‘I’m too old now,’ Ismaël’s Ghosts shows, but rarely complicates, the sense of anxiety and repentance that a man might experience when the final traces of his youth finally evaporate,” writes Blake Williams, dispatching to Filmmaker. “There’s a spirited and capricious tenor beneath it all that brightens its emotional axis, while elsewhere the narrative liberally juxtaposes various horror, rom-com and espionage tropes against classic Hollywood hat-tips (‘five films compressed into one,’ Desplechin boasts in the press kit).”

“Did Desplechin get seduced by the problems that plague filmmakers like himself?” wonders Tim Grierson at Paste. “If so, he’s done a disservice to his own work, which needed a solution to its deficiencies—not an extended reverie that merely highlights them.”

“Amalric’s way-over-the-top, shouty, furniture-smashing performance bluntly underlines Ismaël’s inner turmoil, although it’s never clear whether he’s supposed to be a tragic or comic figure,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “The film itself veers wildly between self-mockery and taking itself super-seriously.”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez reports on the press conference for Film Comment.

Update, 5/19: “It is even difficult to call this film an ambitious one because one is left wondering what those ambitions might have even been,” writes David Acacia for the International Cinephile Society. “He attempts to include so much, and it all seems like a smokescreen to obscure that all of it does so little.”

Updates, 5/20: “Speaking as a Desplechin agnostic,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment, “I can’t say I’m outraged, as some critics here have been, by the self-indulgence of Ismael’s Ghosts; good on him for not boring us, or letting us get too comfortable with a neatly tailored narrative. But here he simply doesn’t seem to have been willing to commit himself to any one of the films that this might have been.”

At the Notebook, Lawrence Garcia and Kurt Walker have posted a video interview with Desplechin (11’11”).

Update, 5/21: For the Playlist, Jordan Ruimy talks with Desplechin “about his influences, Cannes, and whether Ismael really is his alter ego.”

Update, 5/23: “At 110 minutes, it’s one of Desplechin’s shortest,” notes Miriam Bale, writing for W, “yet drags and felt longer than any of his previous movies. This may be because the “commercial” cut screened was twenty minutes shorter than his original version. Sometimes a film has to be a little longer for it to have a seamless quality that was otherwise elusive here.”

Update, 5/24: “When, in one sequence,” writes Sam C. Mac at the House Next Door, “French actor Hippolyte Girardot shows up, playing Ismaël’s put-upon film producer and antagonizing the eccentric director about the state of his unfinished latest effort, the provocation triggers a torrent of half-cocked story directions and aesthetic ideas from Ismaël. An errant gunshot abruptly ends the reverie, and represents the danger of an over-enthusiastic mind. Desplechin knows that he’s pushing the limits of engagement throughout Ismaël’s Ghosts, even for his faithful, but that’s also the same harried space that the best of his work has occupied.”

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