Berlin Patrick Gamble

Berlin 2019: Ghost Town Anthology review

★★★★☆

The reverberations of loss in a small town awaken the spirits of the recently deceased in Denis Côté’s chilling adaptation of Laurence Olivier’s Répertoire des villes disparues. Occupying a peculiar space between life and death, arthouse and genre, Ghost Town Anthology isn’t a horror story exactly, but a portrait of a place where the supernatural just so happens to creep in.

The eeriness starts from the first frame when we witness a young man die in a mysterious car crash. His name was Simon, and he came from Irénée-les-Neiges, a small town in rural Québec with a population of 215. “For a house of cards to collapse, you only have to remove one card” eulogises the town’s mayor “and Simon was that card”. His death disrupts the tranquility of this secluded community, with people reluctant to discuss the particulars of the accident. But, they’re soon forced to face an even more uncomfortable truth when a group of mysterious figures begin appearing throughout the town.

The language of ghosts and ghost stories has long been an important (if abstract) way of talking about place, history and community. Indeed, Côté doesn’t focus on one particular person or family, instead presenting a symphony of disjointed stories, with each of these characters existing in a border space between the comfortable here and the precarious there. These mysterious spectres are soon revealed to be the ghosts of the town’s former inhabitants, caught between past and present like doubly exposed negatives. But this isn’t a genre films, and despite the eeriness of their presences – including one particularly unnerving scene in an abandoned house – they aren’t interested in haunting the living; they simply wish to occupy the spaces they once lived in, mute and motionless.

Shot on 16mm, there’s a touch of frayed elegance to the film, and although these ghosts aren’t malevolent, Côté still manages to draw out a latent sense of foreboding through his meticulously calculated choices when it comes to framing and movement. However, despite the seriousness of his premise, it doesn’t mean to say there aren’t any traces of the Québécois director’s deadpan style. Côté’s is well-known for his mischievous streak, upending expectations with his dryly funny and thematically enigmatic work and here his fondness for devilry is exemplified by a group of masked children who cause mischief throughout the town. Are they ghosts, or just bored kids? Who can say?

A town meeting is called where it is revealed that the dead are returning all over rural Québec. Just not in the big cities. By this point it’s unclear which of these people are alive or dead, and as a sense of acceptance sweeps over the room it becomes clear these apparitions are meant to embody the dormant conscience of the town. They represent a nostalgic longing for the past and a fear of an uncertain future; something increasingly prevalent in all rural regions, not just Quebec, with Côté’s seemingly suggesting that if we continue to ignore these forgotten regions they’ll die from our indifference. Inviting mystery, ambiguity, and a pervasive sense of unease, Ghost Town Anthology is an entrancing yet unsettling allegory that builds like the pressure of an approaching storm that never quite arrives.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble