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Ismael’s Ghosts

By Alan Ng | March 23, 2018

We start with the origin story of French diplomat, Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). A loner with a particular set of skills…not those skills…an aptitude toward the intelligence game and linguistics. Wind of Ivan’s abilities attract the interest of the French Government and Dedalus is recruited into the high stakes world of diplomacy. But this is not the story of French director Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts.

Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric) is a veteran writer/director, who is in the middle of shooting a film based on the life of his estranged brother, the above French diplomat, but we’re watching Ismaël’s story. As a young man in his 20’s, Ismaël married the just-as-young Carlotta Bloom (Marion Cotillard), daughter of famed Israeli director Henri Bloom (László Szabó). Henri is more than just a father-in-law. He served as Ismaël’s directing mentor and father figure in a way.

Three years into their marriage, Carlotta disappears off the face of the earth. But that was then, Ismael’s Ghosts takes place today, thirty years after Carlotta’s disappearance. Ismaël believes Carlotta is dead and Henri thinks there is still hope she is alive. Although both men have moved on with their lives, both continue to suffer nightmares about Carlotta’s fate.

“Three years into their marriage, Carlotta disappears off the face of the earth…”

Speaking of moving on, Ismaël is now in a committed relationship with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Flashbacks reveal his relationship with Sylvia began and how Carlotta’s disappearance still haunts Ismaël. While secluded with Sylvia in Henri’s family home by the sea to work on the final draft of his film, Carlotta suddenly appears.

Carlotta was lost…emotionally. Feeling trapped by her father and husband Ismaël, Carlotta ran away from life altogether. She eventually found her way to New Delhi, India, where she changed her identity and married a local. After the recent death of Carlotta’s second husband, she returns to France and to Ismaël.

Carlotta’s timing couldn’t be worse. Ismaël is about to begin production on his film, his relationship with Sylvia is getting serious, and Henri’s health is deteriorating. The news of Carlotta’s return could be too much stress for him to handle. So Ismaël decides to keep Carlotta’s return a secret.

Ismael’s Ghosts is a fascinating tale of a man, whose ghosts happens to be a real person and how her return haunts him to the point of an emotional breakdown. The second act of Desplechin’s film really is the only part of the film that really counts as it deals with an odd love triangle. Ismaël and Sylvia’s relationship is tested with Carlotta’s return. Carlotta wants to pick up their relationship where she left it as if nothing happened. Sylvia starts to feel more and more like the third wheel in the relationships.


I have two major problems with the film. Desplechin weaves scenes of the film Ismaël is shooting with the main story and about halfway through, we realize what we’ve been watching are scenes from the film Ismaël is shooting. It all just seems like a distraction from the better story of Ismaël, Sylvia, and Carlotta.

The other problem is the third act. When Ismaël’s relationship with Sylvia and Carlotta goes awry, Ismaël goes through a mental breakdown causing him to abandon production on his film and flee to his childhood home. His producer Claverie (Jacques Nolot) has to hunt him down and convince him to finish the film. This is the point where the film’s action starts to get a little silly and distracts from the amazing performances of act two.

I would recommend Ismael’s Ghosts for the second act along. The acting from Amalric, Cotillard, and Gainsbourg is fantastic and heartfelt. Their love for one another feels real and not overly dramatic. I wish Desplechin would have just centered the film on these actors and expanded their relationship to one another. Now that’s a good movie. The rest of the film ultimately interferes with what would have been a great story, instead of a mildly good one.

Ismael’s Ghosts (2018) Written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Starring Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

3.5 out of 5 stars


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