The ghosts in Arnaud Desplechin’s film “Ismael’s Ghosts” are not supernatural spirits, but flesh-and-blood mortals whose absences haunt the film’s titular protagonist (Mathieu Amalric). But just because they can’t walk through walls doesn’t mean they can’t toy with his sanity.

The story opens inside Ismael’s imagination as he’s writing a screenplay for a movie about diplomatic intrigue, starring his younger brother Ivan (Louis Garrel) as an elusive spy. The real Ivan lives a conventional life halfway across the world, estranged from Ismael, whom he sees as frivolous. That judgment could be masking jealousy or resentment: Ismael has cultivated a creative life for himself, one that Ivan views as a moral shortcoming.

Ismael also can’t shake the memory of his wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard), who disappeared over 20 years ago and who was eventually declared dead. When she shows up suddenly at his house one night, Ismael thinks he’s seeing a ghost.

It turns out he’s not.

Complications arise with his current partner, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who’s as grounded and caring as Carlotta is cold and flighty: Cotillard exudes an eerie detachment, while Gainsbourg radiates a casual warmth. Still, even Sylvia has her limits.

As Ismael, Almaric grounds the unwieldy film – a shorter cut premiered at Cannes last year – delivering an incisive performance that imbues his subtlest gestures with searing turmoil. Unfortunately, Desplechin stuffs too many subplots into the film, diminishing the power of his central conceit — that our most persistent ghosts are the living whom we’ve failed.

★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Ismael’s Ghosts

When • Opens Friday, May 4.

Where • Broadway Centre Theatre.

Rating • R for sexuality, including some graphic nudity, strong language and brief strong violence.

Running time • 135 minutes; in French with subtitles.