“Ismael’s Ghosts” is jam packed with some of the greatest talent that France currently has to offer – Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Mathieu Amalric, Louis Garrel and director Arnaud Desplechin, who is responsible for the wonderful “Kings and Queen,” “My Golden Days” and “La Sentinelle.” And yet, the picture doesn’t quite work. In this case, it’s not an issue of there being something missing – rather, it’s a case of there being too much.
Desplechin’s films have frequently followed the exploits of Paul Dedalus (played by Amalric as a stand-in for the director). This time around, Amalric portrays filmmaker IsmaelVuillard, who is in the middle of a movie shoot that he just can’t seem to wrap. He is pals with an elderly director named Bloom (Laszlo Szabo) and Ismael’s brother is named Ivan Dedalus (Garrel), so the Joycean references still abound, albeit in service of an odyssey that is all over the place.
Ismael is romantically involved with Sylvia (Gainsbourg) – who loves Ismael despite his faults – and we learn that his previous wife, Carlotta (Cotillard) – who is Bloom’s daughter – disappeared some 20 years prior and is assumed to be dead. However, Carlotta nonchalantly appears one day on a beach where Sylvia is sitting, ingratiates herself and ends up moving in with Ismael and his current paramour. Despite being friendly at first, Carlotta eventually tells Sylvia that she intends to get her husband back, throwing everything into disarray.
Meanwhile – and this is a film that stockpiles in meanwhiles – Ismael is pestered by his producer pal Zwy (Hippolyte Girardot) to get his act together and finish his film. This leads to a lot of melodrama. At the same time, we get a glimpse of the film that Ismael is making about his estranged brother, a diplomat who is involved in some dangerous affairs in far-flung corners.
One of the problems with “Ismael’s Ghosts” is that all of the various story threads do not flow into each other organically. The scenes with Garrel’s spy missions – which are in Ismael’s film, although we are unclear whether the scenes are based on Dedalus’ life or fictional flights of fancy on Ismael’s part – feel jarring when they butt up against the more somber scenes involving Carlotta’s return. In fact, her story completely drops out of sight for large periods of time. The film is also often tonally imbalanced. At times, it plays Ismael’s foibles for laughs, while at other times, scenes feel gloomy and, for lack of a better word, ghostly.
Desplechin is among France’s better filmmakers. His filmography reached its zenith with the great “Kings and Queen,” but a number of his other works – the mysterious “La Sentinelle,” family drama “A Christmas Tale” and bittersweet Dedalus films “My Golden Days” and “My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument” – are also very good. “Ismael’s Ghosts” has some interesting moments, lovely camera work and decent performances, but there’s entirely too much going on here – and it often feels as if the various pieces belong in several different movies.