Arnaud Desplechin’s Les Fantômes d’Ismaël kicked off this year’s Cannes Film Festival with a whimper rather than a bang. The film is a patchwork of ideas pulled from the director’s previous work and feels uneven despite excellent performances from the three main leads – Mathieu Amalric, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard. Are the references to Desplechin’s previous films meant to add depth to a new take on a ménage-a-trois? Or has the director produced a film aimed purely at his fan base? Whatever the reasons, Desplechin’s film-within-a-film format is uneven and lacks cohesion. Using his own back catalogue, the director has drawn Amalric’s character, Ismael Vuillard, from Kings and Queens. Louis Garrel’s character Paul Dedalus shares a surname with the one Amalric played in Desplechin’s My Golden Days and My sex life or how I got into an argument while Henri Vuillard is the name of Amalric’s character in A Christmas Tale. There’s even a nod to Hitchcock in Cotillard’s character Carlotta, the name of the female lead in Vertigo. The relationship between Ismael and the two women in his life – his current girlfriend Sylvia (Gainsbourg) and ex-wife Carlotta should provide enough interest to keep the audience entertained without the confusing addition of the behind the scenes making of a spy thriller based on Vuillard’s brother Ivan.
Ismaël Vuillard’s wife Carlotta mysteriously disappeared when the two were still a young married couple. After years of searching, Vuillard finally declares his wife dead and moves on with his life eventually meeting a new love, astrophysicist Sylvia (Gainsbourg). The insomniac, hard drinking Vuillard is drawn to the unemotional, practical Sylvia and her almost monastic lifestyle. The two are happy together until Carlotta makes an unexpected and unwelcome re-appearance while the couple are on a beach vacation. Carlotta’s reasons for her disappearance are as obscure as the woman herself and she soon makes it clear she is back to reclaim her former life including her husband.
Desplechin’s love of the close-up is used to excess adding to the claustrophobic feeling generated by the relationship between the three adults. Gainsbourg and Cotillard are a formidable pair and their scenes together, particularly one where Carlotta lets slip her mask and dances to a song on the radio watched closely by Sylvia, are the highlights of the film. Fans will be happy to note Desplechin’s favourite themes are all here – love, nostalgia, the juxtaposition of the past and present – but newcomers may be less than thrilled.