Ghost Town Anthology – London Film Festival 2019 – Film Review
Atmospheric from the outset with wintry scenes of disused cabins in a small town of 215 inhabitants there is that initial unsettling sensation that all is not as it appears. The shaky, handheld camera movements certainly ratchet up this general sense of unease. When Simon Dubé’s car crashes unexpectedly, the region of Irenée les Neiges in Quebec is understandably devastated but this is just the beginning of the emotional study contained within Ghost Town Anthology.
The film’s exploration of grief is subtle with minimal transition between scenes, through the use of long shots in a documentary style, to the funeral scenes where the town’s Mayor, Simone, advises the community that whilst Simon’s death was tragic, he was only 21, life must continue. This sentiment is echoed by the rest of the incidents that unfold and the town’s sleepy nature manifests itself in the slow pace of the film. It is therefore difficult to predict the perspective that the film will deliver, and it is never fully developed, as a plot, as to whether Simon’s death was accidental or deliberate.
At times, a suspense filled thriller and at other times a psychological horror, Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology does cause its audience to wonder as Simon’s brother Jimmy does, ‘whether there is truly something else out there after death.’
As otherworldly incidents occur, which are brilliantly shot in a grainy 16mm footage, being a small town there is that reluctance to accept assistance from ‘outsiders’. The film therefore also provides an insight into the construction of a small-town community and its norms. Indeed, its Mayor proudly insists that the town ‘resolves its own affairs!’.
We are also exposed to the various relationships of the neighbours involving a few quirky individuals that provide the film with a quality leaning towards the absurd genre. The overall effect of the film is rather silent as we absorb, from a distance, the enormity of the grief on the town’s inhabitants and the natural sounds of walking up steps, snowstorms and pounding on walls are emphasised to dramatic effect and therefore take on a different eerie meaning.
There are ghostly sightings which the community appears to take within its stride particularly when Jimmy and his mother, Gisele, reveal that Simon appeared to them on separate occasions. In another film, such supernatural announcements would have been dismissed but in Ghost Town Anthology this is consistent with the collective emotions and encouraged. Simon’s father, however, struggles to manage the grief effectively as an individual and after driving off on a purported ‘errand’ is seen in isolated scenes wandering within the woods. This may be illustrative of the marked differences between the ages and genders in their approach to grief as Gisele and Simon utilise such encounters to move forward with their lives instead.
As a small town, that sense of isolation and sparseness is rife. There are discussions of life in the bigger cities such as Quebec City within which there is probably a better economy, a larger population and better opportunities as such ghostly sightings do not appear to have pervaded those locations. It is however from the outsiders that such knowledge of the other Canadian cities is gleaned despite the community’s distrust of such individuals. Equally, we are privy to scenes at Simon’s workplace in the quarry and neighbouring garage which also seem rather bleak and isolated which conforms to that portrait of loss and isolation in Ghost Town Anthology.
Indeed, the town’s setting emphasises the supernatural with the howling winds and snowy filled landscapes which can be misleading in suggesting that the film would be leaning more towards the direction of a horror. It may have been preferable for the film to develop such horror elements further given the appearance of unidentified individuals wearing masks, which initially seemed similar to scenes from the film, Us. However, such characters overall just seem surplus and underdeveloped.
Overall, Ghost Town Anthology is a slow burning exercise in the analysis of the fragility of life and the appreciation of family and community connections. For some characters, it is almost impossible to leave the town, whether in the realm of the living or the dead, as there are so many ties to the area whilst others harbour aspirations for a better life elsewhere. It is unsettling in parts due to its unflinching exploration of grief and the resistance to interlopers as in the words of the Mayor, on behalf of the inhabitants, this is ‘their town’. Reminiscent of the French television series, The Returned, this is an interesting portrayal of life in a small community.
This will not be a film for everyone due to its subject matter but the stunning cinematography, the setting within a remote Quebecois town, I certainly enjoyed learning new Canadian-French words from such dialect, and its supernatural elements may just be enough of a draw to pique and sustain the audience’s interest.