Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery channels slow cinema maestros Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang in A Ghost Story, a beautiful meditation on grief, time and place. It doesn’t start out that way, though. Initially, A Ghost Story looks and feels like a stereotypical low-key US indie with subtle horror tropes.
Andrew Droz Palermo’s lensing recalls Malick, as do intimate scenes in which a beardy C (Casey Affleck) and an unsettled M (Rooney Mara) whisper in each other’s arms on the sofa of their small Texas bungalow. The narrative, if that’s what it could be called, begins with something bumps their piano in the night. The seed is sewn for eerie discomfort rather than big scares, and there’s a strain of personal tension in the air; C’s fondness for their little home and M’s desire to escape it. However, the disagreement is short-lived. An agonisingly slow pan from the front garden to the road reveals the aftermath of a car accident, with C dead at the wheel.
While M is consumed by grief, C himself is unable to move one, now taking the form of a ghost – a white sheet with crudely cut eye-holes. It’s a simple but evocative design choice that channels an acute sense of nostalgia. Suddenly the magic hour Malick light holds a different purpose, as does the boxy aspect ratio and rounded edges of the screen. This is clearly a film about loss, but its form now seems to emphasise this various refracted natures of that loss. As the ghost remains passively in the house, unable to comfort his mourning widow, there’s a deeply resonant sense of attachment to place.
Even in the moments when we are uncomfortably intimate with M’s suffering – the scene in which she stress-eats a condolence pie is a tough watch – we’re as aware of the house itself as those in it. “Unlike people,” said Jenni Olsen in her wonderful essay film The Royal Road, “landscapes and buildings tend to endure for many generations”. This is the case in A Ghost Story’s unexpectedly metaphysical third act, which sees C’s spirit endure even after M’s departure, silently observing this place he loved in all its ups and downs. There is one occasion on which C’s emotions get the better of him, and he violently reacts to a new family living there, giving the film its closest brush with recognisable paranormal activity.
Instead, though, Lowery confounds expectations to release C from traditional notions of temporality. He shoots forwards and backwards in time, from a steel and glass high-rise future to the distant past (the film’s one bum note comes with the massacre of a settler family by a native American tribe which seems to serve little purpose). All the while, he is searching for that thing that he lost, that connection with M that was taken from him so unexpectedly and which seems to exist only in this one place to which he is eternally bound.
Given that this film was shot just days after completing his work on Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has done a masterful job a creating a film bumming with emotional resonance, that combines his indie credentials with something a little more formally daring. Some audiences will struggle with its affection for slow cinema, by if you give it time, A Ghost Story can deliver just the message you need to hear.
The 52nd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival runs from 30 June-8 July. kviff.com
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson