As in the later films of Alain Resnais and Raúl Ruiz (especially You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and Night Across the Street), Ismael’s Ghosts finds French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin simultaneously collapsing and expanding his body of work, reflexively revealing its many layers, like a pop-up book. Desplechin liberally borrows character names and plot points from many of his previous films, playing fast and loose with the narrative connections that exist between many of them, resulting in a nesting-doll narrative that’s far removed from 2013’s formally and dramatically disciplined Jimmy P. Desplechin builds instead from 2015’s My Golden Days, which positioned itself as a loose prequel to 1996’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument.
Ismael’s Ghosts is also about the neurosis of romance—or, the romance of neurosis—and features Mathieu Amalric as its Desplechin surrogate. But the source of that neurosis here is this man’s awareness of his proximity to death—not the imminence of his death, but rather its inevitability. Which is to say that this is something akin to Desplechin’s midlife-crisis movie, and it takes his self-referentiality to new extremes, filtering his familiar themes and archetypes through the manic, sleep-deprived mind of Ismael Vuillard (Amalric), an effusive-to-a-fault film director. Ismael, like Desplechin, is from the Northern French commune of Roubaix, which makes the autobiographical ambitions here seem even more explicit than usual. The reason why those ambitions resonate, though, has a great deal to do with the way the film’s helter-skelter plot relates Ismael’s precarious relationship to his past to Desplechin’s own anxiety-ridden consideration of his filmography.
Immediately complicating this struggling-artist narrative is an indulgence in a mysterious digression related to the French diplomat Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), who’s stationed in Tajikistan and may be a Russian spy. This “Ivan” isn’t necessarily real, but a character in Ismael’s latest film, based on Ismael’s estranged and enigmatic brother of the same name. Ismael’s Ghosts opens with this film within a film, and as we eavesdrop on hushed conversations between besuited diplomats about a seemingly vanished super agent—and about whose past little is known—we’re informally introduced to Ivan.
For a while, the audience doesn’t know much more than this about the character, as Desplechin suddenly jerks us out of this narrative and into one centered on the creatively blocked Ismael, hopelessly poring over an unfinished screenplay and blasting rap music in his apartment. He gets a call from his elderly father-in-law, Henri Bloom (László Szabó), who’s awoken from a nightmare about his daughter, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard)—Ismael’s wife, who disappeared at the age of 20, and has long since been declared dead. When Ismael arrives at Henri’s apartment, he finds the old man projecting images of a young Carlotta on one of his walls, obsessing over details of his daughter and her marriage to Ismael. (Henri remembers her as an innocent, leaving Ismael to correct the man’s faulty memory—to remind him that Carlotta had numerous affairs before she went missing.)
After many painful years of waiting, Ismael has made some semblance of peace with his wife’s disappearance, and finally moved on to a relationship with astrophysicist Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But his encounter with Bloom serves as an important reminder of the havoc caused by Carlotta’s absence—such that when she suddenly reappears and wants back into his life, Ismael emotionally short-circuits, becoming unable to decide between the two women in his life and jeopardizing his relationship with Sylvia, and causing him to double down on his stubborn refusal to complete his film.
Ismael’s Ghosts reckons with the awesome presence of absence, with the paradox of an emptiness’s formidable expanse. Ismael’s existential panic brings on an endless barrage of incidents: oversized emotional outbursts, intricately explicated backstories, and narrative digressions (which reference 2005’s swooning melodrama Kings and Queen and 1992’s espionage thriller La Sentinelle). What’s ultimately so moving about this film is that the more over-stuffed its various narrative threads become, the greater the absences in each character’s life are felt—whether it’s the absence of a brother, a daughter, a wife, a lover, or even the absence represented by an unfinished film.
This is also why the director’s cut of Ismael’s Ghosts, which is 20 minutes longer than the version that premiered at Cannes in May and includes some structural changes, feels more substantial and immersive than the original cut. Scenes that have been restored (including some extra time at a beach house with Ismael, Sylvia, and the intruding Carlotta, as well as a strange diversion involving Ismael’s relationship to his real brother) tend to deepen our engagement with these characters’ turbulent emotional experiences—and by extension, our connection to the film’s commitment to reframing defiant inhibition as a kind of tragic form of compensation.
Desplechin’s formal technique works in the opposite register of the film’s narrative; while he indulges some of his familiar flourishes (iris shots, melodramatic soundtrack cues, fourth wall-breaking monologues), his style here is more subdued, focused even, than usual. The filmmaker clearly wants to home in on the intimacy of the relationships in Ismael’s Ghosts, favoring tight frames of his couples’ faces and stripping his mise-en-scène of extraneous visual information; he sets long sequences in areas of seclusion, like the aforementioned beach house and an eerily empty café. The sparseness of the staging, and the recurring presence of curtains in the frame, emphasize Desplechin’s self-aware sense of his film’s theatricality, the view that his characters extraordinary displays of romanticism are essentially performative, an exaggerated externalization of an interior emotional self.
In this sense, Ismael’s Ghosts is one of Desplechin’s most emphatic expressions of his personal, ever-expanding artistic vision. Far from the slight, under-developed diversion many wrote it off as after its world premiere at Cannes, the film reveals itself—especially in its intended, lengthier cut—as an unsparing self-assessment, by turns celebratory, deeply melancholic, and funny. (One especially noteworthy scene, in which a gun-wagging Ismael, during a drug-addled creative reverie, accidentally shoots his producer in the arm, suggests the danger of unchecked inspirations.) The tonal inconsistencies in Ismael’s Ghosts can be a bit whiplash-inducing, but as with Desplechin’s best films, the combination of broadly employed excess and intricate detail makes for a cinema that feels invigoratingly full.
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Garrel, Alba Rohrwacher, László Szabó, Hippolyte Girardot, Jacques Nolot Director: Arnaud Desplechin Screenwriter: Arnaud Desplechin, Léa Mysius, Julie Peyr Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 132 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Buy: Video
Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty
M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.2
What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.
Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.
In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.
That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.
The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.
Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.
There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.
A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.
It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.
Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie
The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.2.5
Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.
The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.
But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.
Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: The Heiresses Is a Contemplative Look at Class
Ana Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Marcelo Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it.3.0
In writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, middle-aged lesbian couple Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) live together in a bourgeois household with only the leftovers of its former grandeur. The house and its furnishings, Chela’s inheritance from her parents, have a dated, hand-me-down quality, and the couple is gradually selling off the expensive furniture and china to pay for Chiquita’s debts. The emptying of the house of Chela’s possessions reflects the greater emptiness that Martinessi makes the audience feel in the space, where hardly anybody but the couple appears, and where the lights seem to always be off, presumably to save money.
But selling off Chela’s inheritance is to no avail, and Chiquita ends up in what’s essentially a debtor’s prison (the bank she owes money to charges her with fraud). Chiquita had been the dominant personality in their relationship, and after she’s sent to prison Chela finds herself in an even emptier house, without much to do. When an elderly neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), asks her for a ride one day, and insists on paying her for it, Chela finds a new vocation, becoming a kind of unofficial chauffeur to the neighborhood’s still-wealthy ladies. Although she doesn’t have a license, she begins driving Pituca and her friends around the city, picking up a regular gig driving the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) to visit her ill mother. Initially flummoxed by the way she has fallen from her bourgeois indolence into a working-class job, Chela begins to embrace the relative freedom offered by driving, as well as the independence her bourgeoning relationships with the other women give her from Chiquita.
Martinessi cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as his inspiration for the film, but The Heiresses has little of Fassbinder’s grandiose flair. This film’s characters spend more time staring contemplatively off screen than they do erupting into sudden emotional outbursts, for example, and Martinessi doesn’t accentuate the superficiality of Chela’s bourgeois home by arranging a literally glittering mise-en-scène, as Fassbinder might have done. Instead, Martinessi’s images are rather static and quite dark, relying on the natural lighting of the dimly lit house and Chela’s cramped Mercedes, the two places where most of The Heiresses’s scenes take place. The result is a film that’s more grounded—and more stylistically pared down—than Fassbinder’s performative melodramas.
In other ways, however, The Heiresses does recall Fassbinder’s drama of failed domesticity. In their shared home, Chela and Chiquita are surrounded by the signs of a disintegrating upper-middle-class patriarchy, represented in the ornaments of wealth Chela identifies as coming from her father. And like Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, though patriarchy is a structuring absence in The Heiresses, Martinessi’s film is overwhelmingly female: Angy has an ex-boyfriend who appears in the background of a couple shots, but no man’s face is seen throughout the entire film. While The Heiresses presents an almost exclusively female world, it uses very few exterior shots, communicating a feeling of confinement—most literally in those scenes in which Chela visits Chiquita in the women’s prison.
This sense of confinement reflects on Chela personally, as well as on the women in the film more broadly. As the nouveau riche come to look over her possessions, Chela spies on them through a cracked-open door. Martinessi presents these scenes from Chela’s voyeuristic point of view, reflecting her isolation and trepidation in relation to the outside world: She’s ashamed to now be reliant on selling her family’s possessions, but she’s also afraid of making contact with anyone outside of her and Chiquita’s world.
At times, paradoxically, the visual and dramatic quietude of The Heiresses feels a bit excessive, but Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it. In downward glances and semi-dazed glares, she captures a character who at once is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and emotionally shields herself from them. Slowly and ambivalently, Chela finds a sense of self apart from her overbearing partner and the legacy of her father—breaking away from, rather than merely avoiding, her oppressive circumstances.
Cast: Ana Brun, Margarite Irún, Ana Ivanova, Maria Martins, Nilda González, Alicia Guerra Director: Marcelo Martinessi Screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi Distributor: Distrib Films US Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019