Ismael’s Ghosts has all of the pieces to make a fantastic familial drama, and for the most part, that’s precisely what it is. However, it also contains the pieces of what feels like ten other movies that are distinctly less interesting and only serve to weigh down the film with about 40 minutes of extraneous material. Basically, the story that’s depicted in the trailer is the movie you want… and it makes up about a third of the entire film.
Allow me the opportunity to attempt to bring this giant tale down to fun size. Ismael (Mathieu Almaric), is a filmmaker who is working to complete a movie about his estranged brother. He spends his days either galavanting with his girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), or drinking in front of his typewriter. About 20 years ago his wife walked out on him and seemingly disappeared into thin air, leaving him wondering if she is even still alive. His relationship with his former father in law remains loving, as they share in the grief of their lost wife/daughter. I should mention that his father in law Henri Bloom (László Szabó) is a world renowned filmmaker in the twilight of his career.
One day, out of the blue, Ismael’s presumed dead wife (Marion Cotillard) just shows up looking to resume the life she and Ismael’s once had. This, of course, causes much tension between Sylvia and Ismael — so much that an entire movie could have and should have been made to follow just this thread. But as soon as this turn of events occurs, the film seems to lose interest, and become more focused on the movie within the movie that Ismael is currently making. These film-in-film sequences play it straight, and it’s only when we go behind the scenes of this movie that it becomes clear how many layers are piling up.
Then comes a plot about Ismael’s actual brother, a plot about Bloom’s failing health, and then a series of sexual affairs that Ismael finds himself embroiled in… all the whole losing his grip on sanity.
Each of these stories is good on its own, but all together it’s just too too much. Especially when the initial love triangle is so potentially compelling. All of these plates are set a-spinning, and it’s there, atop their pole, that each remains until the film comes to an end.
But even with a beefed up run time and a plot that goes from compelling to meandering in a big, sloppy way, there’s a lot of goodness tied up in it all. First and foremost are the performances, which are splendid across the board. Despite being a middling film overall, I’d say that watching the actors and actresses do their thing is well worth the ticket price and then some. Charlotte Gainsbourg is not typically an actress to miss, and even though she exits the story rather early on, she steals the film. Perhaps it’s because her Sylvia doesn’t have enough runtime to descend into the melodrama which sets in from act two onward.
This isn’t to say that the melodrama doesn’t work or that the actors don’t nail it. Delivering melodrama is a tough line to walk for any actor, and pardon my ethnocentrism, but it feels like a skill I see exhibited best in French film. Meaning that when I think of “French drama” my minds’s eye is picturing some seriously over-the-top performances. While this is my first foray into the films of Armand Desplechin, it’s my understanding that this is his wheelhouse. And it shows. Mathieu Almaric has to sell a descent into madness that isn’t particularly well-earned, but does so in a way that smooths over the deficiencies of the script and succeeds at being entertaining throughout the entirety of the film. He has those “woe is me” eyes that can evoke sympathy as quickly as they do fear. This is a trait he shares with Marion Cotillard who, at a moment’s notice, can go from pathetic to sensual to manic with just a glance.
It’s difficult to dig too deeply into any of the other performances, because there are just so many of them, none with enough screen time to fuel a criticism beyond “they did really well.” And that’s the difficulty I’m facing here. EVERYONE is very good in the movie they find themselves in… there are just so many damned movies crammed into Ismael’s Ghosts. If you’ve got the patience, the craft is worth checking out, but if you don’t, you may find yourself losing interest before the second reel begins rolling.
Ismael’s Ghosts opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.