Great stories in great cinema begin with a great premise. When a filmmaker identifies and proceeds to breathe life into the questions that grab our attention, it is the simplest recipe for greatness. If only it were that easy to follow through with such a promise. That premise alone is not enough to carry the entirety of a film, especially when the succeeding content lacks substance, clarity, or imagination, and Ismaël’s Ghosts is the latest reminder of this.
As a starting point, the premise of Ismaël’s Ghosts is quite good. Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is a film director who, after twenty-two years of being presumably “widowed” once his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) mysteriously disappears three years into their marriage, meets, falls in love with, and marries Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). While the scars of this untimely separation still bear their phantom pains, Ismaël is at a point where he has mostly moved on. Until Carlotta suddenly reappears, and he must examine the history, compatibility, and passion for both of his romantic relationships with these two women, and grapple with the decision of which relationship he will ultimately choose.
Though it may not be a particularly original conceit (William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie or even something as recent as Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name both play with this concept brilliantly), it would have been advantageous for Desplechin to treat Carlotta as a ghostly presence with unfinished business as a launching point to ruminate about the power of a love that could subvert banal limitations of time and space. Instead, he explores Carlotta’s reappearance very literally, and struggles to provide a convoluted, though still half-baked, explanation that Carlotta never actually died, and successfully hid her existence from Ismaël, her father, and everyone in the establishment. What could have been great metaphysical melodrama is squandered.
If Desplechin had shown the restraint to limit Ismaël’s Ghosts to focusing on a love triangle exploring the conflict between a man forced to question the significance of a fulfilling current relationship weighed against a nostalgia and unresolved feelings for another, Ismaël’s Ghosts could have retained an air of competence. But evidently unable to even do that, Desplechin forces several other irrelevant storylines that are difficult to follow, the biggest offender being scenes from the film that Ismaël is shooting (and the footage suggests that he must be an even more terrible director than he is a romantic partner).
Another barrier to the success of this story is the burden of how difficult it is to become invested in his relationship with Carlotta. There is little to no exposition in regards to what their relationship was like before she left him (only to dally with another man, until his death), so it is laborious to try to come up with reasons as to why she comes back to him, as Desplechin neglects to consider this. Twenty-one years later, she finally realizes that she loves the husband that she has left? There is a barrage of allusions to one big secret as to why she cannot tell him why she ever left, and by the film’s conclusion, this truth remains unanswered. Without any substantial justification or moving demonstrations, one is inclined to think that he simply should have slammed the door in her face, and sympathy for either of their plights does not come easily. At one point, Carlotta tells Ismaël that she can’t live without him. But is it that she cannot live without him, or that she simply is afraid to spend the remainder of her days alone?
Marion Cotillard, who has mostly appeared in disappointing films since the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night except for It’s Only the End of the World (though it is a great one) continues this streak, and is somnambulistic in her performance as Carlotta, and it seems as though she is as confused as we are as to the motivations behind Carlotta’s actions. Worse, Desplechin and his creative team have no idea how to shoot Marion Cotillard, who already has one of the most cinematic, expressive faces in modern cinema (see James Gray’s The Immigrant for definitive proof of this), to at least make her compellingly watchable. Charlotte Gainsbourg makes the most of her thankless role, save for a ridiculous, haphazardly tacked-on closing monologue that, as a last impression, does her performance no favours. Meanwhile, whatever Mathieu Amalric tries to accomplish is nothing that remotely resembles a human being.
It is even difficult to call this film an ambitious one because one is left wondering what those ambitions might have even been. He attempts to include so much, and it all seems like a smokescreen to obscure that all of it does so little. Desplechin states that “it’s forbidden to think that we will make a masterpiece. We’ll try to make a film that feels alive.” Counter-intuitively, Ismaël’s Ghosts would have felt more alive if Carlotta had been allowed to remain a titular ghostly presence, and her literal death might have been what could have given her (and even the others) a greater opportunity to share their humanity.