'Ghost Town Anthology' ('Repertoire des villes disparues'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

More phantom malaise than menace.

Denis Cote chronicles the bizarre after-effects of a small-town tragedy, weaving supernatural elements into the tattered social fabric of a rural community.

There are no scares in Ghost Town Anthology, but a disquieting mood slowly builds as the dead start returning to haunt a rural village shocked out of its stagnant inertia and imperviousness to change. French-Canadian critic-turned-filmmaker Denis Cote's latest occupies a stylistic middle-ground between the gentle observation of his nonfiction cine-essays like Bestiaire and A Skin So Soft on one hand, and his oddball elliptical narratives, like Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, on the other. Probably too subdued for genre fans and too psychologically thin for those with artier inclinations, the low-key mood piece nonetheless has enough ambiguity to keep you watching.

It could almost be described as a slyly playful, minimalist take on M. Night Shyamalan territory, though that risks making it seem more commercial than it is. But the words "I see dead people" could be on the lips of pretty much everyone in Irenee-les-Neiges, a tiny fictional Quebecois town of just 215 people.

Shot on grainy, washed-out-looking 16mm with a handheld camera, the film opens with images of a wind-blasted, snowbound rural flatland dotted with dilapidated barns, a picture interrupted by a car driving at high speed that veers suddenly off the road and directly into a wall of concrete blocks. The crash draws the curious gazes of a handful of children in raggedy winter-wear and woolen masks, with black circles covering their eyes and mouths. These sprite-like figures appear throughout, their identities revealed only toward the end, though anyone paying attention will figure it out sooner.

The driver of the car, killed on impact, was 21-year-old Simon Dube, who leaves behind his brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor), two years older, torn between anger and grief; his shattered mother Gisele (Josee Deschenes); and his father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil), who is unable to help his wife or surviving son, taking off with no fixed destination to sort things out in his mind.

The mayor of the close-knit village, Simone Smallwood (Diane Lavallee), takes a defensive tone to the apparent suicide, even in her funeral eulogy. Chafing against the growing feeling that the countryside is dying as rural communities turn into ghost towns, she calls Simon one of the brave young fallen soldiers. "But we will not lose the war," she declares. "Life goes on." However, she curtly refuses the offer of investigative help or grief counseling from the county office, bristling when a representative arrives anyway. The mayor's open hostility seems fueled by the stranger, Yasmina (Sharon Ibgui), being a Muslim, her appearance already having drawn disturbed attention at the local diner. Simone informs her in no uncertain terms that the villagers are capable of dealing with their own problems.

Cote trains a deadpan gaze on a small cross-section of the villagers. Nosy Louise (Jocelyne Zucco) and her doting husband Richard (Normand Carriere) are a complacent middle-aged couple, their vigorous showshoeing through the woods interrupted when they come across a dead deer. Socially awkward welfare-recipient Adele (Larissa Corriveau) is "a few lightbulbs short of a chandelier," according to Richard, but he and Louise take her in anyway once she starts freaking out. Diner owner Pierre (Hubert Proulx) wants to invest in a fixer-upper despite the mayor's warning that the house has bad energy since a depressed father's murder-suicide incident there decades earlier. Pierre's girlfriend Camille (Rachel Graton) just wants to move someplace more vibrant. And Andre (Remi Goulet) seems as dependent on his buddy Jimmy for stability as Jimmy was on Simon.

At first, Cote remains cryptic about whether the townsfolk are actually seeing people or merely imagining it, particularly when Gisele, Jimmy and Romuald start having encounters with Simon. The most vivid of them occurs when Romuald picks up a hitchhiker who responds to his questions with silence and goes to sleep in the back of the car, before gradually being revealed to have the face of his son. Simon's appearance to Jimmy by the hockey rink is more unequivocal. For a filmmaker more interested in horror tropes, there might have been some significance in Simon's body being kept in storage until a thaw allows for a spring burial, but this is not that kind of movie.

While Simone seems to think the two figures she sees standing in a field one night are a trick of the darkness, there's no mistaking the startling experience of Adele, who shuts herself in a shed at the sight of one of the masked urchins, only to look out in terror through a window and see 25 or so unfamiliar figures suddenly gathered there.

Aside from the end credits, Cote uses no music, only a low, ominous drone on the soundtrack, so the movie remains strange, mournful and anxious rather than actually frightening. What's unusual about the sightings is that the ghostly figures show no sign of evil intent or direct communication of any kind, and once their provenance is explained by the enterprising Yasmina, the locals seem almost accepting of them. Only the fragile Adele remains literally suspended between the living and the dead, while others react to the intrusion into their lives as an impetus for change.

Loosely adapted from the debut novel by Montreal-based writer Laurence Olivier, this is a curious film, deliberately threadbare in its plotting and muted in its emotional effect. But it is open to any number of interpretations, touching on fear of outsiders and otherness, the importance of reckoning with the past and the danger for insular small-town communities of being forgotten, as much due to their own closed-off nature as to big-city migration. It could just as easily be dismissed as slight, but you get out of it what you're willing to put in.

Production companies: Couzin Films
Cast: Robert Naylor, Josee Deschenes, Larissa Corriveau, Diane Lavallee, Jean-Michel Anctil, Remi Goulet, Jocelyne Zucco, Normand Carriere, Hubert Proulx, Rachel Graton, Sharon Ibgui

Director-screenwriter: Denis Cote, loosely adapted from the novel by Laurence Olivier
Producer: Ziad Touma
Director of photography: Francois Messier-Rheault
Production designer: Marie-Pier Fortier
Costume designer: Caroline Bodson
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: Films Boutique

97 minutes