Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It’s too bad the titular character can’t call the Ghostbusters. This movie could really use them.
Director Arnaud Desplechin’s ISMAEL’S GHOSTS has a high-concept premise that would’ve earned it a greenlight at Touchstone back in its heyday. In fact, it did, when it was called HELLO AGAIN, a story about a suburban housewife (played by the incomparable Shelley Long) who returns from the dead to haunt her recently remarried husband. It’s a catchy hook, to say the least. However, Desplechin’s drama can’t hold a candle to the aforementioned late-eighties fantastical comedy. It’s as if he, along with screenwriters Léa Mysius and Julie Peyr, thought, “Let’s remake HELLO AGAIN with a Guido Anselmi type (Fellini’s protagonist from 9 ½) as our beloved hero. Make it not funny, charming, or zany. It’ll be twice as long and a thousand times more stuffy and inaccessible. Finally, let’s focus it entirely on the wrong character.” Now, I don’t think I need to tell you, but none of these ideas are good ideas. Simply put: this is an absolute chore to sit through.
Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is a successful middle-aged filmmaker who lost his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) twenty-years prior. She vanished, leaving both him and her father Henri Bloom (László Szabó) grieving over her abrupt disappearance. Ismaël has moved on, moving in with lady love Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who adores him, flaws, foibles and all. But just as he’s about to begin pre-production on his latest film, and whilst out on a beach vacation with Sylvia, the long-declared dead Carlotta shows up, begging to be taken back.
For as much as this is a tale about a creator returning to his own creation – both within the context of the narrative itself and the fact Desplechin makes a nod to his own creation with Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), brother of a character in MY SEX LIFE…OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT, A CHRISTMAS TALE and MY GOLDEN YEARS – it should also be about his female characters’ journey towards regret, reluctance and acceptance. But the renowned filmmaker barely scratches the surface when it comes to exploring their psyches in a genuinely thoughtful, provocative manner. We’re there to simply aid the male arc. Nothing more. A woman’s role is to rescue him from himself – like she hasn’t got better things to do with her time. We’re there to heal broken men. It’s a disheartening slog to see this play out not just in Sylvia’s relationship with Ismaël, and his with Carlotta, but also in Carlotta’s relationship with her father. There’s also a bit with an actress (Alba Rohrwacher) too, as if we didn’t already get the point Ismaël is a lust-worthy object. Plus, this doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test as the women argue over who wins Ismaël’s affections.
The first act nails the filmmaker’s creative torment, presenting layers of intricate psychology. The following acts, however, crumble into pure narcissism, a terrible score and a lot of Amalric screaming. If that’s your jam, then by all means.
Sure, there’s some great imagery here like Carlotta sitting silently against the backdrop of deadwood, and her seductive dance to Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” (that needs to be gif’d immediately), but it’s all so slight when something much more resounding should’ve been accomplished. Showing Ismaël’s film within a film breaks apart any narrative momentum. And dare I say his film modeled after his estranged brother’s spy adventures isn’t very good?!
Perhaps what’s most infuriating is this director’s cut adds twenty minutes onto the cut that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. No film is ever made better by adding more to the run time. What’s necessary is to utilize the time more economically.
ISMAEL’S GHOSTS is now playing in New York. It opens in further limited release on April 6. It opens wider on April 13.