There are no literal hauntings in Ismael’s Ghosts, a wry, lyrical, but often plodding drama from director Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale), only metaphorical ones. Freewheeling French filmmaker Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), who shares Desplechin’s hometown of Roubaix, is in the process of simultaneously shooting and rewriting a new movie when he and his girlfriend, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are visited suddenly by Carlotta (a wide-eyed Marion Cotillard), Ismael’s presumed-dead wife who vanished 21 years ago.
Carlotta’s return causes upheaval, but it’s only one factor in Ismael’s perturbation. It’s apparent that he and the free-spirited Carlotta would have grown apart even if she hadn’t run off (she’s the running-off type). But Sylvia, who’s prudish and insecure on a good day, naturally feels threatened by Carlotta’s presence. Meanwhile, Ismael is struggling to finish his movie, a spy thriller based on the adventures of his own brother (Louis Garrel), who refuses to cooperate; he’s plagued by nightmares; and he remains a friend and confidant to Carlotta’s father, acclaimed director Henri Bloom (Laszlo Szabo), who never got over his daughter’s disappearance.
One senses that this handsomely shot, well-acted film is personal, and familiarity with Desplechin’s previous work might make it more vivid: Amalric played a musician named Ismael Vuillard in Kings and Queen, and the spy brother has the same last name as a character (played by Amalric) in two of Desplechin’s other films. Without that context, Ismael’s Ghosts, a film about absence, feels like it’s missing something, the same way this review is missing a concluding sentence.