Ismael's Ghosts review Mathieu Amalric Marion CotillardYear: 2018
Director(s): Arnaud Desplechin
Writer(s): Arnaud Desplechin, Lea Mysius, Julie Peyr
Region of Origin: France

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Color, 135 mins

Synopsis: Follows a filmmaker whose life is sent into a tailspin by the return of a former lover. (Source)

There are no ghoulish tormentors, supernatural beings or traditional jump scares in Ismael’s Ghosts, and yet it’s as haunting a ghost story as ever. The ghosts in this film turn out to be something much more relatable, as director Arnaud Desplechin explores past lives, a reemerging lover and parts of ourselves we’ve tried so hard to forget. In the best way, Desplechin renders a reflection of how we can be tethered to an idea or feeling, and how something as simple as a memory can become a prison that’s impossible to escape. Fittingly, this isn’t a straightforward rumination of guilt and regret, but a sensory experience that’s dense and at times unforgiving. With its abstract structure and poignant foundation, Desplechin subverts expectation and digs deep into our psyche.

The story centers around Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a film director who’s gone through rough patches in both his personal and professional lives. When the film picks up, he’s in the midst of prepping his next production, but there’s also something eating away at him inside. It isn’t long before we learn that what troubles him is the memory of a lover named Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who disappeared inexplicably years before. Though he’s tried to create a new life with a woman named Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), their tenuous relationship is brought to a boiling point once Carlotta reappears after twenty-one years. Suddenly, Ismael, Sylvia and Carlotta find themselves at a crossroads, trying to reconcile who they once where, who they currently are, and who they want to be.

What makes Desplechin’s film so fascinating isn’t just what it’s saying, but how the director chooses to say it. On the outset, Desplechin weaves Ismael’s narrative with that of an elusive spy named Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), who takes center stage in Ismael’s latest script. This meta story is just the tip of Desplechin’s densely packed film, however, with things flashing between past and present while and pivoting on Ismael’s struggles and a rendition of the film he’s at work on. The entire thing can admittedly get a bit hard to follow at times, but creates a heady tapestry that isn’t unlike our own messy memories, flowing like stream of consciousness and stitched together through raw emotion. As the plot constantly shifts and loosely unfolds like a cloudy haze, Desplechin searches for truth and hope through the fallible, flawed reality that each character has created for themselves.

Ismael's Ghosts review Marion Cotillard Charlotte GainsbourgTaking us through Desplechin’s labyrinthian tale, is a winning ensemble. Amalric’s Ismael is our overall entry point, a tortured artist stuck in stasis because of his inability to move forward. Amalric takes what could’ve been an overly weepy character and makes him feel earned in many ways. With Sylvia, Gainsbourg tackles a character that usually isn’t allowed to have depth in her position. Gainsbourg gives the role a grace despite her unlikely situation. As one of the film’s most obvious ghosts, Cotillard renders a damaged woman who is complex, giving weight to her trauma and the film a proper conundrum. Together, Gainsbourg and Cotillard are one of the film’s greatest assets, rendering a unique relationship between Sylvia and Carlotta. Louis Garrel and a few others round out the cast of Ismael’s film-within-a-film, adding texture and unexpected nuance.

With its unpredictable slant, Ismael’s Ghosts has a lot to admire, sticking with us the more we try to untangle its mysteries. Overall, the film’s a commendable experiment, encapsulating love and loss as it weaves an atypical romance akin to a twisty thriller. Needless to say, the film is a refreshing challenge, forcing us to keep up with its immerse presentation as we’re thrust into the frantic headspace of its characters. As Desplechin’s film dives deeper into the surreal, it also finds a graspable truth, one in which life’s disappointment and confounding tragedy gives way to slivers of unexpected grace.