Rhys Handley on Denis Côté’s ‘Ghost Town Anthology’ (2019)
Although “anthology” might not be the best term to capture its nuances – its French analogue ‘répertoire’ arguably does a better job – it is still suggestive of the tableaux-like make-up, the light thread of connectivity between disparate narratives, that gives Denis Côté’s feature its shape.
Ghost Town Anthology / Répertoire des villes disparues explodes outward from its shocking inciting incident – young Simon Dubé’s suicidal car crash – with its tendrils delicately displacing and interweaving from there.
In the wake of Simon’s death, an elegiac calm falls over the town of Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges — the isolated, titular Quebecois setting for the film. His funeral is a muted affair, strung along by Diane Lavallée’s Mayor Smallwood half-hearted attempts to rally the town with platitudes of community and shared purpose. But the townspeople are adrift after the loss of Simon; a community pillar and a seemingly well-adjusted young man.
Making full use of the sparse, unforgiving landscape, Côté uses the constant groan of wind and the crisp aggression of virgin snow to fortify the sullen calm with an oppressive, lingering feeling of paranoia. Even before the film starts eking out its more supernatural tendencies, there is a sense that ghosts are floating on the edges of the frame — like a muted analogue to Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, Simon’s name is never far from anyone’s lips, and his death dredges up a more pervasive collective grief the town has ignored for generations.
The effects of Simon’s death are of course felt most acutely among the Dubé clan themselves, who fracture as their disparate responses to the event leave them at odds. Robert Naylor seethes and rages as brother Jimmy, his youthful face etched with an aging desperation for answers and understanding now forever beyond his reach; mother Gisèle (Josée Deshchênes), quaking with a threadbare grasp on decorum) falls inwards, clinging onto relics and totems of the past; while father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil) quietly flees, unable to reconcile a terrible loss of meaning as his life is upended.
Responses from the wider township spiral around the central family, as rural life sees individuals overlapping in touching, haunting and unexpected ways — an intricate web of symbiotic subplots feeding into one another. One of the most intriguing is Adèle (Larissa Corriveau), a sweet and troubled girl whose emotional purity and openness leaves her more readily exposed to the sinister, unnatural forces at play in the background. She mourns Simon quietly and gently at first, but her demons rapidly fester into something aggressive and unknowable.
What is impressive in Côté’s work here is his dexterous counter-balancing of the domestic melancholy that befalls Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges with the literal spectres that begin to haunt the town as hysteria mounts. Simon himself leads the slow forward march of a host of deceased citizens who return to the streets of their former hometown, silently traipsing around in plain view of the loved ones they left behind.
It is a potent visual representation of the grief the populace carries together, recalling Robin Campillo’s 2004 feature Les Revenants and its subsequent television adaptation. Through a frank, steady camera and a stark palette of black and grey against brilliant white, Côté lays the mundane groundwork of the grinding tedium of life after loss before gingerly easing in the more blatant ghostly elements of his story.
Even when these ghosts manifest, they are passive, distant and completely tangible. Their presence is unquestionable and is immediately accepted as real by the town, whose citizenry is perhaps quicker to reconcile a supernatural diversion than it is to contend with its own psychological burdens.
Questions emerge around a place’s ability to hold memories, whether the town itself, a garden shed, a hockey field, or an abandoned house. Characters turn to notions of escape, believing that by abandoning these geographical totems, they might be free of the pain they now carry or at least find the space to finally heal. As these conversations play out through the prisms of Simon’s death and the physical mystery of the ghosts he brings back with him, characters begin to eke themselves towards different kinds of enlightenment, whether that be recollection, reconciliation or surrender, at least tentatively starting on the sorts of paths that might work for them.
Ghost Town Anthology is not a film with answers to the bigger questions about life after death (for both survivors and the departed), and is all the stronger for forgoing any sort of explanation for its purely metaphorical fantasy device, and as such does not seek to provide catharsis or resolution. Through steady philosophical consideration and acute character study, it instead contends with the beast of grief and the slow, grinding struggle to overcome it.
But the attempt to overcome grief is folly and so acceptance becomes the only path – and Côté urges us all to find the strength within, and collectively, to keep carrying our ghosts with us.
Ghost Town Anthology screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival.
You can read our interview with director Denis Côté here.