Ismael's Ghosts

Movie review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Ismael's Ghosts Movie Poster Image
Confusing French drama has shocking violence, nudity.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 114 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Most of the many themes touched on aren't explored in depth or to a satisfying conclusion, like relationships with siblings and letting go of the past. Family reconciliation and forgiveness bring a small sense of closure but is weakly or abruptly conveyed.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sylvia is an astrophysicist, although we see her working only once. Mostly she's propping up Ismael emotionally. Carlotta selfishly, relentlessly pursues her own wishes, but ultimately is able to reconnect with her father after disappearing for 20+ years. Ismael tries to drown his emotional pain and fear of nightmares in alcohol and pills, is saved from madness only by Sylvia's love.


Only a few brief scenes with violence, but they're very shocking. One is very gory: A man's face is blown off by an exploding cell phone; blood, bone, spatters briefly shown. A man is shot in the arm and a lot of blood spattering on a wall is shown; the man survives with some permanent injury. A man shoots a gun at what seems to be a hallucination or ghost; the shots have no effect. Scary hanging dummy meant to terrorize a character.


Full-frontal female nudity seen once, briefly. A few scenes of simulated sex show legs splayed, thrusting, moaning, kissing, and caressing but no sensitive body parts. A couple kiss and caress while undressing each other and are next seen rolling around in bed under covers with the woman wearing a camisole. Nipples and vagina mentioned once.


Translated from French: "whore," "f---ing," "s--t," "son of a bitch," "dammit," "crap," "ass," "bitch," "screwing," "pr--k," and "c--t."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Ismael is almost always seen drinking wine or brown liquor. Other adults drink with meals or occasionally in bars; drunken behavior is shown, especially slurring words, poor judgment. Ismael takes what seem to be sleeping pills and liquid from a dropper with alcohol. One seemingly drug-induced montage is dark, eerie, depressing. A doctor recommends lorazepam, diazepam, or dopamine injection. Hospital staff request Valium. A forced injection of something to knock a man out. Ismael chain-smokes while he's working. Other characters occasionally smoke, usually in the background.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ismael's Ghosts is a French drama with English subtitles. Violence is rare but shocking; one scene briefly shows a face being blown off and the gory remains, another shows a gunshot to the arm with lots of blood and a large splatter on the wall. There's a scary hanging dummy meant to terrorize a character. Full-frontal female nudity is shown briefly once, and there are a couple of simulated sex scenes with no sensitive parts shown, plus some kissing and caressing in underwear or clothed. Strong language translated from the French includes "s--t," "c--t," "f---ing," and "pr--k." Ismael drinks alcohol, smokes, and takes pills frequently; friends warn that he's hurting himself but he doesn't change his behavior until he almost loses his mind. Several scenes take place in bars and show behavior like slurred speech and iffy decisions, like letting someone you just met into your apartment. Minor and background characters smoke occasionally.

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What's the story?

ISMAEL'S GHOSTS return to haunt the famous director (played by Mathieu Amalric) when he's in the middle of shooting a movie about his estranged brother. Ismael is haunted by regrets over that relationship, and by the loss 20 years ago of his young wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard). Ismael's finally in love again with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the two take an idyllic vacation together to a beach house. Both of their worlds are turned upside down when Carlotta appears from out of nowhere. Sylvia invites the penniless Carlotta to stay with them. But Carlotta wants her old life, and Ismael, back again. Who will he choose?

Is it any good?

Unfortunately, a strong cast of top-flight actors doing great work isn't enough to save this muddled French drama from the sense that there's just no reason for any of it. Murky, unknown motivations in Ismael's Ghosts stop adding suspense and interest when they drag on too long and no answers are even peeking over the horizon. Confusing moves back and forth in time interspersed with a spy story don't add or build tension the way they should. The stories take too long to develop, answers are too slow in coming if they come at all, and especially with the spy story, once you figure out what's going on, it's too far away from the setup for you to be able to piece any kind of meaningful revelation out of it.

The acting's good, though, and fans of French cinema or of any of the three main actors will enjoy watching their performances even without being able to piece together a cohesive whole. It ends on a positive note, although one that seems to arrive because the director just decided it was time, rather than because the story reached its natural conclusion. The rare but shocking violence and mature sexuality make it best for oldest teens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the sexy stuff in Ismael's Ghosts. Are nudity and sex scenes in movies a big deal? In this case, do they add to the story or characters, or are they gratuitous?

  • What about all the strong language? Is it OK? Is it realistic? Does it add to the movie?

  • Lots of drinking and smoking here. Is it glamorized? Are there consequences? Is it OK if it's adults drinking, instead of teens?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

Themes & Topics

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