News and Commentary – First Thoughts about Ismael’s Ghosts

This weekend your intrepid correspondent was able to see Ismael’s Ghosts, the most recent offering from Arnaud Desplechin, at the New York Film Festival. An earlier, shorter cut had received mixed notices at Cannes, but we were eager to attend, both in anticipation of the screening and for the promised Q&A with the director that would follow.  Desplechin is the writer-director of one of our all-time favorite films, A Christmas Tale, as well as several other treasures, including Kings and Queen.

Since Ismael’s Ghosts will not open in the U.S. until March, on offer here are some brief, preliminary thoughts. This is something of a departure at Mid Century Cinema; we do not tend to traffic in movie “reviews” (some thoughts on the critical enterprise can be found in our review of A. O. Scott’s book on that topic—we do write book reviews, apparently). Rather than reviewing films, we prefer to talk about them, and it can be hard to talk about a movie you’ve only seen once. But we’ll give it a try here.

At the center of Ismael’s Ghosts is Mathieu Amalric, who has appeared in the director’s last five features. (Desplechin tends to draw on a stock company of actors for his films—often playing newly imagined variants of characters that had appeared in previous movies.) A complex, ambitious, and not easily summarized film, a central theme involves the legacies of Ismael’s relationships with people who have vanished from his life, most notably his young wife Carlotta, who disappeared without a trace twenty years ago, presumably (and legally) deceased. It is surely not a coincidence that Carlotta is also the name of the character in Vertigo who died many years previously, and who motivates much of the action when she does or does not come back to life.

In any event, the vanished Carlotta complicates and looms over the already precarious existence of hanging-to-his-sanity-by-a-thread movie director Ismael. Raw and daring performances by Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg carry the picture, and Desplechin is a dauntingly sure-handed director—at no point when watching this movie do you doubt that you are in the hands of a master, and very happy to be there. About three-quarters of the way through, I was certain I would soon be adding Ismael’s Ghosts to my personal list of All-Time-Greats. But it does seem, after one viewing at least, that the film unravels somewhat over the course of its last half hour, and gives way to entropy and excess. But this is a quibble. Ismael’s Ghosts is a special film. It is alive with imagination and performance and with everything that the movies can be. The production design and set direction, especially for the principal interior locations, are inspired. The large cast is uniformly excellent. László Szabó, who plays a famous film director (and holocaust survivor) holds the screen for three spellbinding, unforgettable scenes; Hippolyte Girardot is as much a pleasure to watch here as he was in Kings and Queen.  One reaches the end of this film amazed at what has transpired—and emotionally exhausted, in the right way.

Desplechin was briefly introduced before the screening. I must report that I was not just pleasantly surprised, but actually moved, when he announced that Amalric would be joining him later on stage, and then again, after the film, when the spotlight showed the two men standing in a balcony box to acknowledge the applause of the audience. Sentimental perhaps, but I was not alone. My companion suddenly grasped my arm firmly when Desplechin mentioned that his friend would be joining him—surely a sign that one has married well (or possibly that someone has a huge crush on Amalric, more of whom can be seen in his fine, triple-threat effort, The Blue Room).


NYFF Ghosts 1

Desplechin, with Amalric, before the screening of Ismael's Ghosts


NYFF Ghosts 2

Amalric and Desplechin share some thoughts after the screening