Fans of genuine ghost stories with revolting apparitions and frightening jump scares will be disappointed by Ghost Town Anthology. A quiet meditation on the sadness of small towns, Denis Côté’s latest Quebecois outing prefers to use ghosts as metaphor rather than actual figures of terror. A modest effort from the experimental filmmaker, the eventual result feels something like Twin Peaks meets Mon Oncle Antoine.
The close-knit town of Irénée-les-Neiges, located somewhere in the Quebec countryside, only has 215 residents. The 216th, Simon Dubé, dies in a car crash at the very start of the film in a seemingly deliberate move that suggests suicide. Fitting the anthology theme of the title, Côté gently tracks the ways in which grief affects the town through a series of different characters. In places this small, it can feel one big family, the ramifications of a sudden death throwing everyone out of shape. The local Mayor compares it to a house of cards — only taking one to fall for the whole apparatus to collapse.
It makes sense that Côté conducted the casting process himself, his actors able to suggest much more with their faces than anything in the screenplay itself. From Simon’s brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor) to his mother Gisele (Josée Deschênes) to the local crazy woman Adèle (Larissa Corriveau) to an old bickering couple who serve something like a Greek chorus, these characters all feel like a part of the landscape. They’re as authentic to small-town life as the shut-down mine and the bleak, windy roads.
These are people left behind by the rest of Quebec. They look in vain for the reasons why Simon died, until one resident bursts out in frustration that perhaps it’s because he couldn’t see any other way out. A psychologist is sent into the town from Montreal to help the residents process their trauma. A Muslim woman representing the diversity of the modern Canadian city, her headscarf alone seems to rub the old-style Mayor up the wrong way. “We don’t need any help,” she defiantly declares. But when the residents start seeing strange apparitions of long-lost dead ones, the town finally has to confront its own ghosts — both literally and metaphorically.
The film’s images — shot in grainy 16mm — are grey and washed out, reflecting the snowy town’s lack of opportunity. It’s the kind of film that perhaps could’ve (and perhaps should’ve) been filmed in black-and-white. Côté and his semi-regular cinematographer François Messier-Rheault have such a nuanced way with the camera that they can make even the most simplistic of scenes feel visually interesting, imbuing this narratively slight tale with both heart and whimsy.
Côté has always dabbled in the surreal, and feels no need to explain why the ghosts have come back. Are they are a reminder of Quebec’s violent past? A zombie-like symbol come to confront small-town xenophobia? Or are they just a way to get our characters to reflect on their own lives? Just like Twin Peaks, it’s all open to interpretation, making Ghost Town Anthology the kind of film where you get out just as much as you put in. While nothing to rave home about, I found this extended short story to be poignant depiction of what’s it like to be stuck in a dead town.
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