“Ismael’s Ghosts” is director Arnaud Desplechin’s sixth outing with actor Mathieu Amalric. With such fantastic works as “My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument,” “Kings & Queen,” and “A Christmas Tale” between them, it’s a collaboration as fruitful as the legendary ones between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and Ingmar Bergman and Bibi Andersson. “Ismael’s Ghosts” is another worthy contribution to contemporary French cinema’s most artistically successful alliance.
“Ismael’s Ghosts” opens with a story within the story. It’s a depiction of the screenplay that film director Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is writing that is inspired by his diplomat brother Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). This internal story shows Ivan to be a spy involved in secrets and intrigue while he falls in love with a woman named Arielle (a luminous Alba Rohrwacher). This story within the story returns intermittently to inform or make parallels to the larger story in which Ismael falls in love with astrophysicist Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Roughly 20 years earlier, Ismael’s wife, Carlotta Bloom (Marion Cotillard), mysteriously disappeared and was declared dead. Ismael and his father-in-law Henri Bloom (Laszlo Szabo), also a filmmaker, still have a close bond, and they are to travel together for Henri to receive an award in Israel. While Ismael and Sylvia are on retreat at Ismael’s family home in Roubaix, the beautiful Carlotta suddenly reappears and wants her husband back. Carlotta does not begrudge Sylvia or Ismael for their relationship with each other and treats her attempt to woo her husband back as oddly impersonal. That only infuriates a confused and jealous Sylvia even more.
Amalric first came to fame in Desplechin’s “My Sex Life” in 1996. For that role he won a Cesar Award (the French version of the Oscar) for Most Promising Actor and he has since won two more Cesars for Best Actor (for Desplechin’s wonderful “Kings & Queen” and for Julian Schnabel’s marvelous “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Amalric had a vulnerable boyish look in “My Sex Life” when he was 29 years old and he still has that vulnerable boyish look, albeit a lot scruffier, at age 50 in “Ismael’s Ghosts.” Amalric is at his best playing off that look – smart, young at heart, lustful, well intentioned yet blind to his selfishness, always thinking he knows himself better than he really does. All these qualities lead to him being an emotional bull in a china shop to the women around him. Most of Amalric’s roles under Desplechin have been variations of this intellectual Peter Pan, and that’s true in “Ismael’s Ghosts” as well. Amalric is again superb here – funny, animated, manic – but while he is the film’s center, even his performance gets upstaged by the powerhouse that is Marion Cotillard.
“Ismael’s Ghosts” is very much a comedy and it’s very much a romance, but those two aspects aren’t closely intertwined so calling it a romantic comedy feels misleading. The romance is amusing at times but the overall tone is more dramatic and desperate. Like many of Desplechin’s films, the passions on display are hot and heavy. His films aren’t realistic but often portray a hyper reality of life in all its chaotic glory layered with some Godardian self-conscious playfulness. They tend to capture joie de vivre as well as l’amour fou. No character embodies that more here than Carlotta and no actor is more up to the task than Marion Cotillard, who glows as the inscrutable Carlotta (named after Carlotta Valdes from “Vertigo”). Cotillard boils down Carlotta’s passion and charm in one central scene when she dances to Bob Dylan’s seemingly undanceable “It Ain’t Me Babe” while Sylvia (and the audience) watches with a myriad of mixed emotions from captivated (wow) to envy (this is the woman Sylvia has to compete with?) to bedeviled (why is she behaving this way?). The second film in Cotillard’s career was Desplechin’s “My Sex Life,” and while she’s only in it very briefly, she makes a strong impression. Coincidental or not, 21 years have passed between “My Sex Life” and “Ismael’s Ghosts” and Carlotta returns to Ismael’s life after 21 years.
“Ismael’s Ghosts” does go off the rails somewhat in the final third as Cotillard and Gainsbourg recede and the story becomes more about line producer Zwy (a hilarious Hippolyte Girardot) trying to get Ismael to finish his spy movie. Desplechin’s films are always messy though and if he indulges in a bit of “8 1/2” with unexpected slapstick, it’s still entertaining. It’s Desplechin-Amalric again, and they’ve done just fine for 21 years. This movie makes one hope for more Desplechin-Amalric-Cotillard though.