In grand European cinema tradition, the protagonist is a film director. Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) is about to start his latest movie when chaos descend on his life. Following the disappearance of his wife Charlotte (Marion Cottilard) years before, he’s tried to keep it together and has gradually made peace with her presumed death, writing and working steadily and maintaining a friendship with her elderly but curmudgeonly father.
He starts a new relationship with astrophysicist Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) that’s gentle and slow, nothing like the passion and fire Ismaël usually lives his life with.
But when Charlotte shows up again, announcing that she went missing for years seemingly because she just had to get away, everybody’s life is sent into a tailspin. Even though Sylvia accepts her back into their lives and Charlotte is nothing but friendly, she makes it clear she wants her husband back – thus leading to the dramatic conundrum that could only happen in a French movie where a famous filmmaker’s state of mind is sliced to ribbons trying to decide which beautiful woman to shag.
That makes it sound more glib than it is and co-writer and director Arnaud Desplechin seems to be going for something more serious, but it’s very hard to keep up with because the story never really plays its hand. Charlotte’s behaviour and demeanour is so enigmatic you wonder if she’s a literal ghost or a figment of everyone’s collective imagination. She shows up but doesn’t seem to have any grand intent or explosive revelation – after simply leaving, now she wants things back the way they were.
In the absence of a narrative that makes much sense or seems to add up to much, it might be that Desplechin just wants to explore the themes above that makes it sound so glib. No matter how scruffy, unattractive or miserable any Frenchman is, he’ll be surrounded with drop dead gorgeous female companions who all tolerate each other’s presence while vying for his affection – it’s a staple of European movies as time-honoured as giant monsters attacking cities is in Hollywood.
There’s a lot here to unpack, but as scenes, characters and plot turns emerge they only muddy the waters of the story more. One subplot involving a spy named Ivan who’s recruited to a shadowy secret service organisation and subsequently disappears turns out (it seems) to be the movie Ismaël is writing and trying to get off the ground, seeming to have nothing to do with anything else going on.
Some of the reviews online seem to say you can only appreciate “Ismaël’s Ghosts” if you know the rest of the director’s work. A lot of his oeuvre is said to be fever dreamed neuroses about his own life and past films, and by many accounts much of the characterisation of Ismaël is a stand in for Desplechin himself as he tries to make sense of his career.
You might be taken in by the incredible lead trio of actors, which are indeed some of the best talents working in European cinema today. But even though you might stay for the extreme French-ness of it all, it feels like the sort of thing you can’t appreciate simply on the merits of its own narrative (which is a mess) without knowing a lot about the canon into which it fits.