A poetically crafted exploration of the human condition

Teodosia Dobriyanova on David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’ (2017)

The Texas art scene seems to function as a creative centre for independent filmmakers predominantly occupied by issues of time. Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater, both of whom have a deeply personal relationship with the southern state, have set the trend, but now Texas-raised David Lowery has been passed the baton. His new feature, A Ghost Story confirms this with a certain aplomb. Following in the artistic traditions of his fellow Texan’s, time is Lowery’s chief preoccupation. What is it about this arid desert, its nature or folklore, that makes its inhabitants sensible to time? Perhaps different places have their own themes, their own memories and ideas. A Ghost Story offers its own thoughts on these questions.

The film begins as a love story circulating around the life of a young couple (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, credited only as “M” and “C”). The two of them live in an old suburban house within Texas, where C makes his music. There is an immense tenderness to the film; the way the scenes are photographed and graded, together with Mara and Affleck’s performances, creates an intimate mood that quickly immerses us in the intimacy shared between the two lovers. Soon this idyllic first act of the film ends with C’s death; the very title of the film prevents this from being a surprise—to have a ghost, someone has to die, and the film pays little attention to the moment of this death. However, this moment transitions us into a second phase – the second act, whereby the audience is encouraged to adapt to a new pace and the very next scene of the film reveals the delicate artistry of Lowery’s work.

Unwilling to leave his wife behind, C never quite walks into the light, and returns to the house as a bed-sheet ghost where he quietly witnesses her grieving process. Lowery has a patient temperament, his slow scenes giving grief the necessary time, allowing emotional intelligibility and yet remaining strictly internalised and inaccessible. Reminiscent of European and Asian art-house cinema, A Ghost Story is a lesson in the virtue of slow cinema, revealing that meaning lies beyond plot-driven situations. Instead constructed by long slow-paced scenes that often remain on screen for longer than it feels comfortable, the film thus provides us with enough space not only to connect with its meaning but to integrate it into our lives, whatever life story we brought with us into the cinema. A brilliant example of this is the already widely-discussed pie scene, in which Rooney Mara’s heroine attempts to eat her sorrow away whilst the ghost passively observes her in the corner. Lasting for nine minutes, this scene not only allows us to connect with M’s grief but gives us length to meditate over the many thoughts and emotions such a scene evokes in us.

The observational aesthetics of Yasujiro Ozu, whereby the camera remains static in domestic interiors, seem to be an influence here. As the ghost, we gaze upon the wife as she moves around the rooms of the house she used to share with her deceased husband. The ghost and the spectators are imprisoned not only be the four walls of the house, but by the four walls of the frame too. The 1:33:1 aspect ratio enhances this claustrophobic mood. She eventually moves out—a decision that stimulates the film’s departure from human love story into transcendence towards a new dimension.

Following the ghost as he witnesses new inhabitants entering the house he is stuck in, A Ghost Story gradually becomes an exploration of space through time, a melancholic fable of the inevitable change of things we leave behind. The film, however, also brings a consolation with its melancholy—maybe, in ways we might never know of, we leave parts of us in every place we occupy.

The soundtrack was composed by Daniel Hart — a friend of Lowery’s who has hitherto made the music for all of the director’s films. Most of the tracks contribute to the minimal aesthetic of the film, sensitively following the film’s mood. But there is one song that sharply contrasts to the rest: “I Get Overwhelmed”, the only song that was not an original composition that becomes a central character in both the diegetic and the non-diegetic worlds of the film.

A poetically crafted exploration of the human condition, Lowery’s A Ghost Story is cinema in its purest manifestation. With a box office that has so far transcended the film’s extremely small budget ($100,000) almost nine times, Lowery’s latest work is not only the kind of film that makes you want to make films, but it shows that a filmmaker does not need tremendous budgets to achieve wonders.

A Ghost Story is available now.

Teodosia Dobriyanova

By Teodosia Dobriyanova

Teodosia Dobriyanova is a writer, programmer, and documentary filmmaker based in London. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London (BA) and Ethnographic and Documentary Film (MA) from University College London. She has written for Dirty Movies, Filmotomy, and New East Cinema.