“ISMAEL’S GHOSTS”— A Story Within a Story

“Ismael’s Ghosts” (“Les fantômes d’Ismaël”)

A Story Within a Story

Amos Lassen

Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghost” was the opening night film at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and is the story of Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a widowed film director who is in the middle of making a film about an atypical diplomat. His wife and lover, Carlotta, died twenty ears earlier an her death still haunts him. He is involved in a love affair with Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and then Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) returns from the dead, causing Sylvia to run away.


Ishmael’s new film is based on the adventures of his diplomat/spy brother Ivan (Louis Garrel). Ishmael takes care of Carlotta’s father even though she has been declared dead after not having been seen for twenty years.

This is spy story-within-a-story that is only moderately interesting with a bit if humor but it is a film that is not sure what it supposed to be. Carlotta disappeared years before under mysterious circumstances and had been presumed dead. Ismael is so obsessed with Carlotta’s memory that he is depressed and drinking heavily drowning. The presence of Sylvia is a bit of stabilizing influence on him until Carlotta returns and everything changes. Ismael and Sylvie are both initially overcome by great shock following Carlotta’s reappearance and this heightens the traumatic sense of change and, perhaps, loss as seen through flashbacks of the beginning of the couple’s courtship. The film becomes melodramatic giving us a sense of emotional void. Basically, the film becomes a jumbled assortment of clashing storylines that forces it into becoming a parody of what its original intention was meant to be.

We think that “Ismael’s Ghosts will focus on a romantic ménage-a-trois filled with sex and jealousy but this loses force as the characters move on with their somewhat strange lives. There is just too much happening in the film. The cast and their performances, however, make the film engaging even though only Gainsbourg seems to really understand what the movie is about. Sylvie is presented as the sanest and levelheaded character of the three leads and she brings actual mystery and complexity to her role. The most disappointing performance comes from Cotillard who struggles to make her character threatening for Sylvie and tempting for Ismael. Ismael begins to lose sight of his directorial career because of the drama that has consumed his life and there seems to me, at least, that there is a great film here but it becomes lost in what we see.

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