2017 New York Film Festival: Considered to be the Director’s Cut, the version of “Ismael’s Ghosts” shown here at the New York Film Festival is undeniably overstuffed. At the same time, despite a bloated running time, Arnaud Desplechin‘s movie achieves an admirable mixing of tones in order to create something oddly fun. Desplechin seems positively delighted to be juggling so much at once, and it rubs off on you. In many ways, this shouldn’t work. It should be too much, too little, and too weird, all at once. Yet, it manages to suck you in. Especially in the odd and hermetically sealed world of a film festival, it leaves an impact.
“Ismael’s Ghosts” manages the difficult task of tackling heavy material and doing so in an ambitious way, while never forgetting to be entertaining. The concept of someone re-emerging from your past, a filmmaker’s obsession, and even sanity itself get toyed with here. Still, somehow it feels accessible. I’m sure an inferior Hollywood remake could easily be mounted, but it would lose much of the quirk on display here. This isn’t a home run, but it’s a solid single for all involved.
We follow a filmmaker, the eccentric Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), while he’s making a movie inspired by his brother, a diplomat. Though currently in a happy relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Ismaël is haunted by the memory of Carlotta Bloom (Marion Cotillard), his ex-wife. She vanished two decades ago, crippling him as well as her father, another filmmaker in Henri Bloom (László Szabó). Presumed dead, Carlotta returns out of the blue, seeking to pick up where she left off with Ismaël. Not only does this create an awkward threesome between Carlotta, Ismaël, and Sylvia, but not having told Henri puts a wedge there too. Eventually, Sylvia extracts herself from the situation. As Ismaël begins to lose a grip on sanity, the importance of those in his life is fully revealed.
The main trio here of Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, and Charlotte Gainsbourg are each doing impressive work. Especially considering how heavy the material sounds, yet how funny it often is, it needs the right sort of performances. Amalric goes big at times, but you really do feel for him. Cotillard is a bit more manic at times than usual, but she’s positively beguiling. If anything, there’s not enough of her here. Her presence hangs over the entire movie, whether she’s on the screen or not. Gainsbourg grounds the film, though she does have the least interesting story when not in Ismaël’s orbit. Aside from László Szabó, the supporting cast includes an amusing turn from Hippolyte Girardot, playing Ismaël’s friend and line producer, as well as Louis Garrel, among others.
Filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, teamed here with co-writers Léa Mysius and Julie Peyr, really does balance the comedy and the drama. “Ismael’s Ghosts” nearly becomes slapstick at times, though during other moments it seeks to make you cry. Desplechin keeps a firm hand on the material, however, so things never waver too far in either direction. He does indulge himself a bit more than necessary, so a tighter edit may have increased the power. Still, for something bloated and indulgent, it has an innocent fun to it. Especially when the silliness of Ismaël trying to avoid finishing his film is depicted, there’s plenty of laughs to be had.
Despite the messiness, “Ismael’s Ghosts” is compelling enough to warrant a recommendation. NYFF often has this sort of French fare on display, and this year is no exception. If you’re a fan of the filmmaker or anyone in the cast, this one is worth seeking out. It might puzzle you a bit, but it also will undoubtedly make you laugh.