Ismael’s Ghosts may not be as CGI or blockbuster driven as Ready Player One, but it touches on one’s addiction to cinema and the creative process. Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) is a successful director who is in production of his latest project, the story of a neophyte diplomat named Ivan Dedalus who may be a double agent.
Understandably obsessed with his storyline, Ismael’s mind often drifts to cinema, but thankfully he’s brought back to life with his astrophysicist girlfriend Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg, the film’s emotional anchor). Haunted by the sudden disappearance of his Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), his nightmares come to fruition with her appearance some 21 years later. Ismael and Sylvia’s vacation at a remote beach house is upended by Carlotta’s visit, and this love triangle forms the basis of the narrative’s first half.
As witnessed by his previous effort My Golden Days and now Ismael’s Ghosts, it’s evident that director Arnaud Desplechin isn’t fond of easy, audience pleasing storylines. If he stuck to the Alfred Hitchcock infused layers of Ismael’s Ghosts (Carlotta is an obvious Vertigo reference, and he also employs the Marnie score in his flick), Ismael’s Ghosts may have received a much better critical reception (to wit, I’d probably love the movie even more, since Hitchcock homages are my weakness).
Instead, Desplechin also shows us Ismael’s gradual mental deterioration due to an existence that’s mainly dependent on creating cinema and self-absorption. Ismael has made a habit of consoling Carlotta’s father (Laszlo Szabo) over her disappearance, and for years they have lived in the shadow of this tragedy. The harsh truth, as Desplechin suggests, is this pain served as a security blanket for these narrow minded men, shielding themselves from truly ever moving forward with their life. Carlotta’s return could have been a source of comfort and forgiveness, but when faced with the option of opening up their own vision of the world, they crumble in their respective despair.
Ismael’s “knight in shining armor” approach in romancing both Carlotta and Sylvia is a conceit that he also developed, as one would guess, from a lifetime of watching and creating cinema. With two women who are more than capable of loving him to the fullest (one can easily argue that Sylvia, even if her life is spent looking at the stars, is the wiser choice), Ismael initially rejects them to slip into his own wormhole of self-destruction. Witnessing a filmmaker mentally deteriorate is, let’s be honest, less tantalizing than watching the inner workings of a love triangle, and Desplachin spends a great deal of time exploring Ismael’s unhealthy state of mind.
Attention is also spent living in the world of Ismael’s movie, as we see the adventures of Ivan Dedalus, a character who was also featured in My Golden Days (he’s the brother of the movie’s protagonist Paul, who’s also played by Mathieu Amalric!) All of these meta references, to many, would be too much to stomach, but Desplechin has created his OASIS by interconnecting his movies. As critic David Fear effectively points out, Mathieu Amalric serves as Desplechin’s screen avatar, and Ismael’s Ghosts has an ambitious kitchen sink approach to its storytelling.
Ismael’s Ghosts ends on a profoundly hopeful note, but Desplachin frames his final moments (unlike Spielberg), behind (pardon the Hitchcock pun) a shadow of a doubt. Ismael may be surrounded by love, but will he really break out of his funk? Maybe, like Wade Watts, Ismael’s OASIS is way too accessible for his own good.
In 2012, I directed a short film, shot in my Downtown Los Angeles apartment, titled The Deepest Dream. It’s a shoddy, amateurish effort, but the intent was there. It’s about a writer who, still obsessed with his late wife, continues to bring her back by hiring a prostitute to play the part. Here’s the video (watch it at your own risk!)
Though Ready Player One is a much more accessible film, Ismael’s Ghosts’ beguiling ending continues to haunt me. Both movies attempt to show us that there is a life beyond our own perceptions and pop culture deep dives. Logically, I know that’s the only way to proceed in this world, and as Casablanca’s (Sam) Dooley Wilson effortlessly sings, “the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”
It’s true, a kiss is still a kiss, but my avatar has other things on his mind.
****Ready Player One (Rating: 4 out 5 *****) and Ismael’s Ghosts (Rating: 4 out of 5 *****) are now playing in theaters.
***If you live in Los Angeles, you can catch the full-length director’s cut of Ismael’s Ghosts at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Regency’s South Coast Village 3 in Orange County. On April 13, Ismael’s Ghosts will hit Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Encino’s Town Center 5.
Listen to this month’s episode of CinemAddicts, the movie podcast I co-host with Anderson Cowan: