Hugo Emmerzael talks to Denis Côté about his film Ghost Town Anthology, why it’s not a horror film, and the joy of filming things he knows nothing about.
Simon Dubé (Robert Naylor), from the town of Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges—a blip on the Canadian map—slams his car into a brick wall in the opening moments of Ghost Town Anthology (French: Répertoire des Villes Disparues). Was it an accident or did this twenty-something crash on purpose? How is this connected to the disappearance of another young person from the town? And what part do the mysterious children wearing eerie masks play in all this? Are they ghosts, the living dead, or something even stranger and more malevolent?
Loosely based on the book Répertoire des Villes Disparues by Laurence Olivier, maverick Canadian director Denis Côté presents a series of questions that, in the end, he refuses to answer. As a result, this haunting drama puzzled audiences at the Berlinale, where it premiered in the main competition. But it’s exactly because of all these questions that Ghost Town Anthology stays with you long after its screening. Rather than simply repeating familiar tropes of the supernatural horror, Côte deploys uncanny genre elements in an elliptical narrative to address more pressing concerns: how we think of the concept of “the other” and how that informs life in rural town communities. Above all, Côté introduces notions of death and decay to indicate what will await us, if we don’t learn how to live with rapturous, yet inevitable change.
Even though he revisits the French-Canadian countryside, Ghost Town Anthology does mark new terrain for the Quebec-based director of films like Our Private Lives (2007) and Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013). Stylistically, Côte adapts a hauntological style that’s informed by gritty 16mm cinematography and desolate, creepy sound design. The chilly visuals and sonics are deployed here to rile up this sheltered community that finds itself in an ideological identity crisis when they’re faced with death and loss. Sitting down during the 54th edition of Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Côte explains what informed him to realise such a skeletal creeper.
electric ghost: Including credits, Ghost Town Anthology runs at a slim 96 minutes. Yet, it felt like it could have easily been three hours long. How aware were you of its narrative scope in relation to its actual playing time?
Denis Côté: There’s a scene that comes very late in the film that’s probably the most exciting for me. It’s in the town hall. Now, everybody is sitting down and they talk about this enigma for the first time. We’re at the seventieth minute, while the credits already start at minute ninety-four. So the last part plays out a lot quicker. That might have given you this impression of its short running time. That’s the biggest compliment you can get. Of how many films do you wish they would last three more hours?
This feeling really has to do with the scale. The film tries to address so much over the course of a short running time.
You’re talking about the fact the film has ten characters. That was terrifying for me. The book I based it on is also very short, only 120 pages of poetic fragments. I kept all the characters, but I added a lot. Then I discovered I had ten characters on my sheet that I had to deal with in less than one hundred minutes. That’s scary. So I turned to films by Robert Altman and Claude Sautet, directors that make films with a lot of people in them, and I was like oh my… Then I discovered that some characters had disappeared for like twelve pages. In the film, there’s a guy and he even disappears for nineteen minutes. So when you edit this you’re terrified.
You could say that this film is not necessarily about every individual character, but about how they compose a community together.
To summarise what you just said: the group has to become the protagonist. That is hard to achieve in writing and in editing. Ultimately, I think the main characters in this film are the winter and the village.
“We made a lot of fun with one adjective: residual. Give me something residual and give me the impression that the town is about to disappear.”
Why the winter?
Because I knew the script would otherwise be too thin. It’s full of metaphors but there’s not that much going on, so you need to rely heavily on atmosphere. The sound design, the fake wind, the fake snow, the 16mm film grain. I discussed with my director of photography how the film’s look could complement the topic. We made a lot of fun with one adjective: residual. Give me something residual and give me the impression that the town is about to disappear.
I had a lot of discussions about the film and about its rules and sets of metaphors. Mostly whether the entities would be zombies or ghosts or something in between. Eventually, we concluded this doesn’t really matter. Do you agree?
I don’t care about the specifics of these entities. It’s the idea of death that counts. But my team was like: “Hey, but what about the make-up? What about the costumes?” I don’t care! You want specific people? I don’t care! They were kind of disappointed. They thought I was shooting a horror film and then I got fed up and I said it’s a film about the living. It says that we should take care of each other. That we should stop being afraid of everything that’s new. That we should stop resisting the change, or else death is lurking around the corner and death will come for our territory, our memory, and everything we stand for as a collection of human beings. The rest? I really don’t care. It’s not a horror film. A horror film will put all the action on the dead people. That’s why some horror films are so bad. They don’t care about the living. The living are stupid and they need to die. And they put all they can on the dead people with this crazy make-up. In my film, they’re the most boring dead people ever. They’re static. They don’t move. They don’t attack. It’s only the idea of death.
This makes it possible that you can embrace death too.
That I like. That I like. My favourite scene is when a woman is levitating. Then you have this young couple and they talk about the future of their restaurant and their relationship in front of the weirdest phenomenon ever!
It’s a Pier Paolo Pasolini reference, right?
Of course. But it’s different because it doesn’t serve the same purpose. What I really like is that the film starts extremely normal and realistic and then it’s contaminated by the supernatural, instead of making it supernatural from beginning to end.
When I saw it premiering in Berlin I didn’t really click with me yet. I wasn’t really on the positive side yet, but it’s been on my mind for a long time.
So it stuck?
It stuck, and it grew on me.
That’s the kind of stuff I adore to watch. My favourite films are the ones you are not watching while you are watching them.
“I mythicise these environments. I feel that you can have a lot of surprises when you don’t really know what’s there. What’s on the bottom of a lake? A monster of course!”
So what do you do instead?
I’m thinking about the film I could be making next. That means you’re watching something you’re not in total connection with it yet, but it does feed you. Claire Denis’ cinema is a good example. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, too. You can watch these films thirty times. And still not totally get them, but your mind is racing. The cinema that I don’t like is the cinema where I sit down and have to wonder who killed the woman: who’s the killer?
Is this because of your background in film criticism?
I became allergic to conventions. When I was young I saw all the horror cinema being made. It’s inside me. I saw The Shining  when I was nine years old. So there’s no way I would make regular horror in 2019. I like to film things I don’t know anything about. I shot in a zoo. Do I care about a zoo? I filmed an old man collecting cars on his property. I just went there with a fascinated eye. I think we should be fascinated by what we’re filming. A lot of filmmakers study their subjects for eight months. If I’d make a documentary about you I’d have to live in your house for six months and then I’m going to bring a camera. Why? I like it when I don’t know anything about my subject.
To film the encounter?
That’s it. It’s a more Herzogian kind of approach than conventional documentary filmmaking. That’s why I like to make films in the countryside. I’m extremely urban; I don’t have a driver’s license; I don’t have a car. I never go to the countryside. I never swim in a lake. Hiking through a forest is extremely rare for me. So I make movies in the countryside. I mythicise these environments. I feel that you can have a lot of surprises when you don’t really know what’s there. What’s on the bottom of a lake? A monster of course!
Or a metaphor?
Of course! I mythicise the things I don’t know about. So the films are fascinated, too. So, maybe if it fascinates the viewer at the same time, that might be a good idea.