Ismael's Ghosts
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (25th November 2018).
The Film

"Ismael's Ghosts" AKA "Les fantômes d'Ismaël" (2017)

Ismaël Vuillard (played by Mathieu Almaric) is a screenwriter and filmmaker that is preparing the final touches on a spy movie. An alcoholic and a pill popper, Ismael's heart was crushed just over twenty years ago with the disappearance of his wife Carlotta, the daughter of the famed filmmaker Henri Bloom (played by László Szabó) who is also distraught and traumatized. Legally declared dead, he is still not over the fact and partially blames Ismael, but the two still remain close friends even with the tragedy between them. The only thing keeping Ismael grounded is his partner for the last two years Sylvia (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), an astrophysicist who has no connection to filmmaking and presents calmness which he needs. But while the two are at his seaside home, they are unexpectedly visited by Carlotta (played by Marion Cotillard), returning to Ismael's place 21 years 8 months and 6 days after her disappearance...

Filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has delved into the idea of the supernatural in the past in "Kings & Queen", and with the title and marketing of "Ismael's Ghosts" it would seem that the idea of the supernatural would make another appearance. While it may be a spoiler, the "Ghosts" referred to in the title is not the idea of an apparition but that of traumas from the past haunting the present. Ismael is carrying the weight of his own trauma as well as his former father in-law's, which date back to World War II and the Holocaust along with the Algerian War. The biggest mystery of the film comes with the biggest trauma and that is the sudden unexplained disappearance and reappearance of Carlotta. Why did she run away? Where was she? Why did she not contact anyone? Why did she return? And what happens now that she is back?

The story should be simple enough as a love story being disrupted into a love triangle, but Desplechin's script is much more than that. The film that the character of Ismael is writing is about a French spy named Ivan Dedalus (played by Louis Garrel), which is based on his brother who is a diplomat and is also estranged from Ismael's life. What made Ivan drift away and what made both he and Carlotta break contact with Ismael for so long? What else is Ismael hiding from everyone and how much of the film he is making based on reality? The relationship between Ismael and Henri Bloom is also examined as a teacher and pupil relationship and how as a filmmaker he wishes to step into the light above the giant shadow that is his mentor and his former father in-law. The amount of happenings into the character's life suddenly is very reminiscent of Fellini's "8 1/2", of a filmmaker with a creative block due to sudden and outrageous happenings in his life all at once. Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" and Alain Resnais' "Providence" are others referenced with the themes of filmmakers looking backwards, and one of the most direct homages is to Hitchcock's "Vertigo" with the naming of Cotillard's character as "Carlotta". "Ismael's Ghosts" is filled with cinematic references throughout and feels like a auteur film, but overall the film doesn't seem to go in one particular direction and it can frustrate rather than mesmerize.

In the earlier portions of the film, it does feel like a suspense when Carlotta returns and the mystery unfolds. While it starts going in the direction of a Hitchcock or Chabrol thriller, it starts to change focus when the story of Ismael's script coming to life with the spy story being made, as well as Ismael's insanity exploding, leaving the audience following Carlotta trying to reconnect with her father, Ismael's brother's parallels, and the spy film's producer Zwy (played by Hippolyte Girardot trying to restore production on the halted film, It could have easily gone in the suspense direction but overall starts to drift off to subplots taking control, and when the most violent scene in the film occurs, it is jarring because it's slightly unexpected and also because it's not particularly relevant to the main plot. Even with the flaws, there is much to be said in the positive aspects. The performances by the three leads - Almeric, Gainsbourg, and Cotillard are excellent as expected. This makes Almeric's sixth film collaboration with Desplechin, and also the second time he would play a character named Ismaël Vuillard following "Kings & Queen" and playing Henri Vuillard in "A Christmas Tale" but as it is, all the characters are not the same or related. Almeric goes through the biggest changes emotionally throughout the film and it's interesting to see both his charm and his madness played with. Gainsbourg shines as always though her role is slightly limited with the supporting girlfriend role. Also her character being an astrophysicist seems to not go anywhere in particular and it's strange that that was chosen as her character's profession. Cottilard previously played a small role in "My Sex Life" for Desplechin in 1996, coincidentally 21 years prior to "Ismael's Ghosts", making possibly a reference to that film, though she is also obviously not the same character. Her character is a complex one though the way her character moves forward can be considered confusing and manic, with an outcome that may not all be as satisfying as one could hope.

"Ismael's Ghosts" never really found a footing in the second half and the critical reaction was also the same. Before opening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, the director decided to excise some scenes from the film, bringing the 135 minute runtime down to 114, with many of the scenes featuring the spy movie that was being worked on being cut, with a few dialogue scenes also being trimmed down. The shorter cut was screened and the reception was lukewarm with praises for the visuals, style, and performances, but critical of the plot and motivations. For home video the film was restored with the original 135 minute runtime as the "Director's Cut", and in comparison it does seem more like a complete film but it still doesn't fix all the flaws in the motivations of the characters.

Note this is a region 0 NTSC DVD


Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in the NTSC format. The visuals of the film are very colorful from the golden lights to the blue skies and sea to the darkness. The DVD does a fairly good job reproducing the colors with good detail, though there are some issues with macroblocking in backgrounds of solid surfaces at times. The framing is correct and there are no errors to speak of such as specs or scratches in the transfer.

The runtime of the director's cut presented here is 134:25, about 21 minutes longer than the theatrical/Cannes cut.


French Dolby Digital 5.1
The original 5.1 track in French with some minor portions in Hebrew and English is presented as the only audio option. The strings of the music score and occasional hip hop tracks sound great with the surround elements as well as the effects sequences. Dialogue is always centered and well mixed, giving a satisfying experience aurally.

There are burned-in English subtitles in a white font. The subtitles are identical to those on the UK Arrow Blu-ray, with the only difference being the Australian release used American English spelling.


No extras are offered on the disc. The trailer courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment is embedded below.


The case states the disc is region 4 only, but it is in fact region 0.


"Ismael's Ghosts" has a wonderful first act filled with suspense and mystery though the second act forward loses a bit of the direction and momentum. Umbrella Entertainment's DVD features a good transfer but unfortunately lacking any extras on disc.

The Film: C+ Video: B+ Audio: A- Extras: F- Overall: C+


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