It’s going to be very difficult to write about this film without spoilers, but I’ll try.
Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology is a curiosity: atmospheric, almost impressionistic, it diffuses ghost-story genre tropes into a calm rumination on loss, death and abandonment that never quite lets go of all its mysteries.
Shot in grainy 16mm, it has a palette of wintery skies, desaturated snow and pale faces wrapped on heavy dark coats to stave off the icy cold. Its tone is similarly icy and bleak.
It starts with a death. Simon Dubé, a popular youth living in the small, close-knit town of Irénée-les-Neiges in rural Quebec, is killed in a mysterious car crash. It’s probably an accident or perhaps a suicide. As the minister at the funeral observes, you only need to remove a single card in a house-of-cards for everything to fall apart. And so his tragic death triggers both the emotional collapse of his immediate family and some eerie supernatural occurrences that affect the whole town.
This is of course a film about grief and much of the narrative concerns the isolating and numbing impact on Simon’s mother, father and brother. All three react in their own way, his father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil) needs space and abandons his family for solo road trip with no apparent destination. Mother Gisèle (Josée Deschênes) becomes introverted and vacant. And Simon’s younger brother Jimmy, after a short immediate burst of rage, is determined to somehow communicate with his dead sibling.
The town of Irénée-les-Neiges is a fading community, its dwindling inhabitants cling on stubbornly, desperately, like a windswept tree on a mountainside as around them the town is decaying. The main source of employment is almost spent and there’s only the bleak, despondent determination of those who remain. The supernatural elements become a metaphor for the slow death and disintegration of rural communities that are left behind, their life sucked out.
In theory this is a ghost story, but it doesn’t feel like a horror film. The acting is naturalistic, the pace is glacially slow and even moments of intrigue and tension are subdued by the chilly atmosphere.
The bleak tone is maintained by the handheld, shaky camerawork and greyed-out colour palette, reinforced by a mostly diegetic soundtrack of wind and snow-crunched footsteps with the occasional layering of a rumbling bass, isolated cello tugs and background high-pitched drones. Many of the shots are middle distance or long shots, adding to the characters’s isolation, alone surrounded by a numbing grey.
The film is quietly observational, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that director Denis Côté – an independent filmmaker living in Quebec – is best known for his documentaries, which include Bestiaire, about how humans and animals observe each other, and A Skin So Soft which explores the routines of extreme bodybuilders.
For such a delicate balance, it only takes a slight misstep to knock things out of kilter. Unfortunately, there are a few. I found some of the supporting characters broke the tone; an elderly couple whose grumbling endearments were presumably meant to be quirky but were just distracting. The local mayor (Simone Smallwood) was also a bit too broadly drawn. The film effectively creates a sense of tense isolation and foreboding detachment, but an unnecessary scene that brings the outside world into the narrative with some clumsy exposition rapidly deflated the gradual eerie build-up.
Some mysterious elements also felt underdeveloped. Early scenes are occasionally interspersed with brief footage of creepily masked children, aimless and mischievous, that made me think of benign versions of the characters in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. Although their identity was prefigured and eventually explained, more could have been done with them. Similarly, there’s an otherworldly moment involving a ‘holy fool’ character very reminiscent of a scene in Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teorema, but that beatific mystery didn’t fit with the overall tone, implying a spirituality that the film’s essence seems to reject.
These are admittedly small criticisms, but they threaten the film’s fragility.
Nevertheless, Ghost Town Anthology creates an impressive atmosphere and tone of resigned sadness and stubborn despair. The tragedy of individuals hopelessly clinging onto something that’s gone. There is warmth and compassion here, a need to connect, but it can’t compensate for the quiet emptiness of those whose fate is to become living ghosts. Relationships and connections abandoned in favour of an empty existence that they cannot give up.
This is an interesting and unusual film. It uses its supernatural elements in ways that I suspect audiences looking for a more conventionally scary film will find baffling and alienating. However, this movie has a different intention and despite its flaws Ghost Town Anthology creates a desolate mood that leaves a lingering impression.Follow @davefilmblog