Review: In ISMAEL'S GHOSTS, Creative Process Can Use Some Help from Ghosts of the Past

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
Review: In ISMAEL'S GHOSTS, Creative Process Can Use Some Help from Ghosts of the Past

Could Ismael's Ghosts be seen as Desplechin's 8 1/2? That is the question that kept coming up in my head while watching the film.

At 58, Arnaud Desplechin lends a deeply personal, metaphysical insight to inner struggles of a creative mind, even more so than in My Golden Days. In his usual sprawling ways, Desplechin goes on explaining the difficulties of filmmaking process and throws in the Jewish guilt/survivor's remorse: What do you do when your loved one, long presumed dead but never forgotten, comes back to your life? This quandary is one of the ghosts that our protagonist has to reckon with.

With multiple flashbacks and movie within a movie, Ismael's Ghosts tells a story of Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a boorish movie director. While struggling with his The Man Who Knew Too Much style, Hitchcockian cold war spy movie project based on his suave (but estranged) diplomat brother Ivan (Louis Garrel), starring Garrel, Ismael falls for timid but supportive, loving Astrophysicist Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). He has been maintaining a good relationship with Henri Bloom (Laszlo Szabo) the father of his missing wife Carlotta (Marion Cortillard) as they share the same grief and loss.

The movie is narrated by Sylvia. Intimidated by this charismatic movie director at first, but charmed by his broken 'widower' side of him, she falls in love. But the reappearance of Carlotta (Marion Cortillard), a long declared absent wife of a Ismael, tests their relationship. Walked out of her marriage at 20, Carlotta manifests herself some twenty years later at the Ismael's childhood beach house where he comes to write. No explanation is good enough for Ismael, furious with Carlotta for sabotaging his life, first by disappearing and now coming back, he resents her greatly. Unable to compete with magnetic Carlotta, Sylvia calls it quits and goes back to her telescope at an observatory up in the mountains.

After sleeping with Carlotta, Ismael flees to his home town of Robaix. All broken up and melancholy, with mixed up memories and emotions brought on by Carlotta, he becomes a hermit. With the production of his spy movie's future uncertain, the company sends in his friend/line producer (Hippolyte Giradot) to convince Ismael to finish the movie. In that chaos, the director finds his inspiration flowing once again, helped by the ghosts of his pasts, so to speak.

In the meantime, Carlotta visits Henri and her presence freaks him out and sends him to a hospital. For everyone who loved her, the impact of her disappearing was too great and deep, her presence is not welcome but painful reminder of  their loss. As similarly themed recent movie A Memoir of War based on Marguerite Duras' book tells us, the pain of losing someone and no sense of closure is too great that even the eventual return can't remedy its wounds.

Desplechin deals with a lot of complicated thoughts and emotions on screen, acted out by three very good actors on the top of their game. And as usual, his writing is excellent. His preoccupation with an international spy in the name of Dedalus is still there, this time Ivan, not his alter ego, Paul. Deliciously self-reflexive and touching, Ismael's Ghosts is another great testament of Desplechin's unique talent as a film enthusiast and a great writer.

Ismael's Ghosts opens theatrically at The Quad and Film Society of Lincoln Center on March 23rd in New York

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at

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Arnaud DesplechinCharlotte GainsbourgFranceLouis GarrelMarion CortillardMathieu Amalric

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