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ARNAUD DESPLECHIN: ISMAEL'S GHOSTS/LES FANTÔMES D'ISMAËL (2017) - NYFF

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MARION COTILLARD AND MATHIEU AMALRIC IN ISMAËL'S GHOSTS

Like Daedalus, Desplechin shoots high and crashes

This new film by Desplechin has some similar elements, going back and forth in time, exotic locations, Russians, with his last one, My Golden Days. But while that one was charming and came together, this one is annoying and makes no sense. It seems the English-language critics agree with me, because the Metascore is a miserable 58%. The French public also seems to have hated it (AlloCiné 2.2, terrible), but the French critics, on the other hand, were pleased (4.0). There is a great deal of sound and fury here - and shouting by the lead actor, Mathieu Amalric, who's at his shrill, excessive worst (and other cast members don't look their best either). But all the complexity seems more imaginary than real.

Nothing comes together, and nothing resonates either emotionally or aesthetically. This is a curiously drab looking film, a jumble of scenes and incidents, full of sound and fury, signifying not as much as they seem to want us to think. Those who admire it all are seduced by the air of complexity and stick with it. The rest of us go away disappointed. At his best, which is a lot of the time, this original and passionate director produces films that are rich and lovely and significant, like Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale or My Golden Days. But he's capable of duds, as is shown by Jimmy P, and this is one of them. No doubt a necessary stepping stone, as Robert Motherwell said about his unsuccessful artwork, to the films that sing and charm us.

The movie actually doesn't begin the way the trailer makes you think, and I admit I saw the trailer several times a while ago: in it, the protagonist, Ismaël, played by Matthieu Amalric (Desplechin's longtime alter ego), a filmmaker (though we don't see him making any films, and only rarely writing) is living with a new woman, Sylvia, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, when suddenly on the beach there appears to her a woman, Carlotta Bloom, played by Marion Cotillard, who declares herself to be the wife who disappeared 22 years ago, a shock that disturbs and infuriates them. She has been alive, and didn't tell them. Well, that's a somewhat contrived subject, perhaps worthy of someone like Hitchcock. But actually Desplechin has a whole lot else going on and it's not clear what part this shocker plays or where the center lies. The trailer is more conventional, and Hitchcockian, and it provides a structure that you could make an interesting film about - that revelation of the reappearing wife missing for 22 years. Claude Chabrol might have made a murder mystery out of it.

The film actually begins somewhere else, with scenes from a movie about a character called Ivan Daedalus (Desplechin seems to have been reading James Joyce - but he's also referring back obliquely to his first film), played by Louis Garrel, based on Ismaël's supposedly ne-er-do-well brother, a minor diplomat, whom he thinks was a spy. And these scenes of Daedalus recur. But what the point of them is, isn't so clear. Nor is the crisis of Carlotta-Sylvia resolved in a satisfying way. Though definite things happen, it's blurred by some shifts back several years that seem confusing.

The action here gets lost in useless drama, Ismaël looking like a bum and having fits of hysteria, everybody slurping from glasses of wine or whisky. The biggest disappointment is that things aren't resolved, either in Ismaël's artistic life or his personal one. But the characters also just don't engage us the way they do in My Golden Days or A Christmas Tale. Much use is made of swirling music, which reminds one of Gabriele Mucino's films, where the main characters are all having an adolescent, or thirty-something, or mid-life crisis, all at once. Mucino's films may be conventional, but they make sense and their issues are resolved. The swirling leads somewhere.

Carlota explains what she was doing in her years in the void, but her revelations are a huge letdown. There's still no motivation, and not much detail. She's not really interesting. But then, of course, perhaps she's Ismaël's fantasy, his "ghost" (fantôme in French). Yet she can't be, because Sylvia is the one who sees her first.

It's not satisfying to watch a film where the plot is a mystery, or the key elements are dropped for other ones along the way for no clear reason. Desplechin is original and gives his imagination free reign, but that allows for self-indulgence, which this time was fatal.

At first I was intrigued. But as time went on, my attention was not rewarded. The Guardian's film critic, Peter Bradshaw, has a knack for putting things in sharp, clear terms, and his conclusion about Ismaël's Ghosts at Cannes stands up today. He wrote: "This is an unfinished doodle of a film, a madly self-indulgent jeu d’esprit without substance: a sketch, or jumble of sketches, a ragbag of half-cooked ideas for other movie projects, I suspect, that the director has attempted to salvage and jam together." The version reviewed here was presented five months later as the 20-minutes-longer "director's cut." It would require more than the addition of additional footage to bring Ismaël's Dreams into a form that made sense and had true artistic merit.

Ismaël's Ghosts/Les fantômes d'Ismaël,[/I] 134 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition 17 May 2017 and simultaneously in French cinemas; ten or so other international festivals, including the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review (as the "director's cut") at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, 14 Oct. 2017.

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