For those familiar with Québécois director Denis Côté’s filmography, it might come as a surprise that he describes Ghost Town Anthology as a horror film. Having spent over a decade building up a strong reputation in the international arthouse community with narrative features (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear), documentaries (Bestiaire), and hybrids (A Skin So Soft), the conventions of genre seem like a strange area to explore for a filmmaker whose M.O. is defying convention altogether.
But Côté remains as slippery as ever, and in this case it feels both right and wrong to slap a horror label on his latest work. Ghosts, things going bump in the night, jump scares, and other supernatural occurrences are all here in one form or another, yet nothing about Ghost Town Anthology feels horrifying or scary. It replaces thrills with intrigue, shrouding itself in an eerie, enigmatic narrative that turns into a metaphor for something much bigger than the confines of its own story.
The film takes place in Irénée-les-Neiges, a fictional small town of 215 people that finds itself in shock when young resident Simon dies in a car crash. His brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor) and mother Gisèle (Josée Deschênes) try to cope with the loss in their own ways, while his father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil) skips town entirely. At the same time, the city’s mayor (Diane Lavallée) tries to prevent a government colleague from sending in a grief counselor to help the townspeople, and several other members of the population try to settle into their usual routines. Then the dead start showing up.
No one can explain why ghosts start appearing around town, usually standing at a distance with a benign presence, and Côté has no interest in providing any answers. Shooting on grainy, washed out 16mm film with handheld cameras, Ghost Town Anthology is designed to look like a relic because its setting and characters represent the endangered species of rural communities. An invisible fog of inevitability surrounds everyone, who either ignore what they know is coming or deny the changing social and economic landscape rupturing their status quo. Côté takes this dying breed and lets death arrive for them early, then shows how they react.
All of Côté’s films have been distinctive, but none have felt more accomplished than this. His last two narrative features – Vic + Flo and Boris Without Beatrice – used a more precise style, with striking compositions designed to portray the isolated mindset of their lead characters. Here, the aesthetic is more documentary-like with its handheld cameras, but the characters are harder to pin down, and the surreal events act in direct opposition to the level of realism we expect from the style. It’s only one of many contradictions that give the film its singular qualities. Côté takes these disparate elements and, rather than having them work in opposition to each other, makes them mesh together in unexpected ways. The effect is alluring.
And Ghost Town Anthology doesn’t just succeed as an unsettling mood piece, either. By taking this small village and throwing an existential weight on it, it explores the way people deal with change by force rather than by choice. There’s comfort in stability, but change is inherent to the human experience (and what better way of showing this fact than the unexpected death of a loved one?). Côté steeps his film in mystery, but keeps the narrative sparse enough to let the ideas dominate, which might be why he can pull off a ten person ensemble with a 90 minute runtime. One’s enjoyment may just depend on how interested they are in what Côté wants to ruminate on, but it’s impossible to deny the strength of his own vision in expressing it. That’s why it’s easy to think that, even though we’re barely through one quarter of 2019, there won’t be another film like Ghost Town Anthology to come out this year.