A chill air blows through the small Quebecois village of Irénée-les-Neiges following a young man’s suicide, bringing with it unexpected and largely unwelcome visitors. Denis Côté’s “Ghost Town Anthology” has superficial parallels to Robin Campillo’s “They Came Back,” in which the dead return, but in keeping with the maverick Canadian’s style, his film is a more intimate, more unsettling work that approaches narrative elliptically: Mysteries remain mysteries, and the value isn’t in finding answers but in emotionally exploring where the questions take you. Shot on 16mm for a suitable graininess, “Ghost Town” is a largely monochrome ensemble piece that muses on, rather than directly addresses, the current hot topics of the “other” and the viability of small-town life. Skirting genre formulas, the film takes a more modest approach than “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear,” and though more universal/accessible, will require intelligent marketing to audiences willing to be carried along by its low-key, melancholic tone.
The disquieting sound design makes an impression from the start, when still shots of a snowy, flat landscape are accompanied by noises including what sounds like wind, yet the trees remain perfectly still. Then suddenly a car smashes into concrete blocks, and a couple of masked children arrive to view the accident. The driver was Simon Dubé (Philippe Charette), 21, leaving behind mother Gisèle (Josée Deschênes), father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil) and older brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor), all questioning whether it was an accident or suicide, yet all knowing the answer.
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Any tragedy of this nature is a major event in a town of 215 people, and the mayor, Simone Smallwood (Diane Lavallée), delivers a funeral oration designed to reinforce the bonds of community and self-sufficiency. When a government official wants to send a psychologist to provide counseling to the villagers, Mayor Smallwood rejects the idea: “We’re all adults here,” she curtly responds on the phone, refusing to allow the offer to dent her self-image as the town’s strong-willed mother hen.
Simon’s death understandably shakes his family to the core: Jimmy doesn’t know how to channel his anger, Gisèle can’t accept that her son killed himself, and Romuald’s depression is so vast that he leaves a note for the family and drives off, uncertain of destination or when he’ll return. Meanwhile, other residents notice strange figures: When they’re just experienced by Adèle (Larissa Corriveau), a relative newcomer with massive anxiety issues, the odd noises and unexplained presences can be dismissed as the figment of an eternally frightened imagination, yet when others report seeing silent individuals simply standing outside, the phenomenon warrants discussion.
Just as many towns have a troubled past refusing to remain buried, Irénée-les-Neiges has a particularly gruesome 1983 mass killing in which a father murdered his four children before offing himself. This information adds an additional level of uneasiness though it might not really be necessary since Côté isn’t especially interested in such a classic horror film plot device: The dead quietly appearing in the fields, including Simon, are apparitions that haunt the psyche even though they’re also seen by the eye. Like countless villages the world over, this one is a ghost town not just because people long dead have returned, but because rural communities are increasingly being emptied out, unable to resist the magnet of big cities. “We work things out amongst ourselves,” says Mayor Smallwood.
How we integrate the past into our lives is one of the film’s key concerns, as well as how we accept presences we don’t understand. Snooping Louise (Jocelyne Zucco), forever spouting platitudes, needs to know and comment on who’s crossing her path of vision at all times, and while she’s not a “bad” figure (Côté is far too subtle a commentator on the human condition to toy with such Manichean formulations), her restrictive mindset and reliance on the routine have helped to create a more divided world in which the unknown is held at arm’s length.
In keeping with the director’s refusal to design his characters to fit one frame of mind, diner owner Pierre (Hubert Proulx) appears to be one of those invested in staying and reviving the town, attracted by an empty old house he wants to fix up even though his partner Camille (Rachel Graton) would rather move to the city. However, that house turns out to be where the family massacre took place, which suggests the question: Do we abandon such places to their ghosts, or reintegrate them for a more vibrant community? Typically, Côté doesn’t answer the question, prodding his audience to think rather than pontificate.
Overlaying the film is the fog of mourning, specifically for the death of a young man but also for the town’s inability to inclusively move forward. Four masked children, like disruptive ambiguous sprites, regularly appear, their presence adding a further level of foreboding: Are they malevolent spirits or a silent observational Greek chorus? A spectacular transformation by Adèle is also open to multiple interpretations, all (well, most) of them valid.
François Messier-Rheault, who also shot “Skin so Soft,” conjures a somber internal and external landscape with the 16mm stock, providing a rawness to the material that fits the overall mood. The soundscape is especially well-calibrated, full of low tonalities, unexpected noises, and mournful winds, completing the picture in a discreet aural frame without embellishments.