Vives les fantômes!

Ghost Town Anthology (Répertoire des villes disparues)
(Canada, 97 min.)
Written and directed by Denis Côté
Starring: Robert Naylor, Larissa Corriveau, Josée Deschênes, Diane Lavallée, Jocelyne Zucco, Normand Carrière, Hubert Proulx, Rachel Graton
Snow drifts are scary, but nobody has quite captured the foreboding nature of snow billowing across the road like Denis Côté does in Ghost Town Anthology. The new and (expectedly) peculiar film from Côté’s mind proves the director to be one of the most distinct voices in Canadian film today, although that trait was already proved with A Skin so Soft, Bestiaire, Carcasses, and Vic + Flo Sawa Bear. Whatever goes on inside his head is the stuff that psychologists dream about, but for those of us who prefer to probe the mind while sitting in a darkened movie theatre, Côté’s movies never cease to fascinate. Ghost Town Anthology might be Côté’s best film yet, and I say this as a passionate fan. It’s a stripped down horror flick that sends shivers to the bone like a winter chill on a February day.

Ghost Town Anthology serves as a fine companion piece to last year’s Quebecois horror masterpiece Les affamés with its bloody brilliant portrait of rural communities left for dead.  The chilling fable feels like something of a departure for Côté despite having all the hallmarks of the auteur’s films. It’s an anomaly as the first adaptation in the director’s oeuvre as he adapts a work of fiction by Laurence Olivier (no, not that Laurence Olivier) about a small town in Quebec, Irénée-les-Neiges, with a population of 215 people. The town’s as empty as the Lightbox on opening night. There is eerie silence and a deep sadness in being in such a big space with so few people, and the sense of isolation can drive a person mad.

That might be the cue that begins the film, as Ghost Town Anthology opens with a car randomly veering off the empty highway and into a barn. One thing about a death in a town of 215 214 people is that it affects everyone. The death of 21-year-old Simon Dubé shakes the town, especially since few, if any, of the inhabitants are younger than the departed man. What hope is there for the future when an entire generation has died out?

Simon’s death has an understandable impact on his brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor), who seems equally lost and without hope now that the local mine is shut for the winter and there’s nothing to do and nowhere to work. Equally distressed by Simon’s death is Adèle (Larissa Corriveau), one of the town’s younger residents, but also one with something of a reputation as the odd duck in town. (They call her “the welfare girl” as a term of endearment.) Simon and Jimmy’s mother (Josée Deschênes) seems just gutted by the loss of her son, while her neighbours, Loulou (Jocelyne Zucco) and Richard (Normand Carrier) do their best to ensure that life goes on, although they both seem acutely aware of the pointlessness of their remaining days.

Being stuck in a dying town with no future is scary enough, but Simon comes calling on the townspeople one by one. Things go bump in the night and bodies appear. The ghosts return in startling numbers and haunt the town with no apparent motive, cause for danger, or desire to complete unfinished business. They just hang about in limbo, much like the survivors of Irénée-les-Neiges.

What’s so brilliant about Ghost Town Anthology is that it’s impossible to distinguish the dying from the dead. The ghosts infrequently appear wearing strange masks—these things that are a cross between old hockey masks and African tribal masks. It takes a long time to realize who and what they are (so, sorry, spoiler alert!) since many of them are sprightly and youthful while the living residents of the town move with the sedated pace of a shopper at the local Tigre Géant. The town, strangely, feels more alive when the ghosts are in the frame.

The town’s indefatigable mayor (Diane Lavallée) discovers that the apparitions in Irénée-les-Neiges are not unique to the area. Small towns all across the province are similarly haunted, while the big cities are at peace. Côté delivers a chilling and thoughtful parable about the abandonment of the rural population as families and communities find themselves devastated by the changes in a metropolitan society.

The reason why Ghost Town Anthology might be Côté’s best film yet is that it feels like the culmination of everything that’s been building in a very eclectic body of work. For a director who comfortably navigates both drama and documentary, and deftly blends fiction and non-fiction in hybrid works, Ghost Town Anthology is rooted in realism. It’s creepy as heck, but the suspense is all generated from Côté’s use of cinematic space and of the natural environment. Blocking, lighting, and composition are key towards building suspense, while the 16mm cinematography adds eerily desaturated palettes: everything looks old, worn, and dying. The pitch perfect performances of the ensemble cast are equally effective. The actors uniformly submit themselves to the dark humour of the Côté film and find an essence that lets the chills hit close to home as viewers consider the fates of these kind country bumpkins. The off-kilter strangeness that defines his sense of humour only makes the jumps and chills even sharper, while the aspect of the familiar is the scariest stroke: we’ve all been somewhere like Irénée-les-Neiges. And chances are, we’ve left it.

Ghost Town Anthology opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on March 15.