Ghost Town Anthology (2019)

Directed by Denis Côté; Written by Denis Côté

A small town drowns in existential ice water.

A young man dies in a car accident and a small Quebecois town mourns. The city elders, staunchly private, refuse the help of the crisis counsellor that’s come down from the big city – they’ll be just fine on their own. Among the youth, misgivings about the death’s circumstances hang between them in suggestive glances. Is this boy’s passing a symptom or a consequence of the rural way of life that’s slowly eroding? Or both?

This, an all-too real specter of modern life, is joined by the supernatural in Denis Côté’s icy ghost story, where an eclectic group of townsfolk begin to feel themselves in the eerie grip of  death.

At the wake of Simon Dubé, the tragically dead, Mayor Simone Smallwood describes him as “a strategic card” of the community – its “heart, body, arms, legs”. In many ways, she’s right. The children will carry the world forward, but rural communities will tell you the children would rather do it someplace else. It’s been the way for a while now, and here, in this little town, life has taken on that of a limb with its circulation throttled, leaving it to slowly wither and turn itself ashen grey. 

With the boy’s death still thick in the air, Côté tells the stories of those left behind: the awkward young girl who has to steel herself before entering a party; an old couple, who in a Larry David-like exchange debate how they can ensure their contribution to a potluck New Year’s Eve gathering is recognized; a man who sees a run-down house and eyes an opportunity, blind to its tragic history; the father of the dead boy, who just needs to get away from it all. 

On their own, they’re unsettled in each their own way, and in a spectral 16mm, Côté films them all in a drab, mid-winter landscapes that no only seem meant to throttle the life out of you, their barrenness also heightens the uncanniness of the people who begin showing up, standing around, watching and waiting for something. In short, no one stands outside in a Canadian winter without a good reason or sinister intent. 

Côté’s film is tight-fisted with its warm moments. They’re there, to be sure, but these moments aren’t meant to paint an elegiac portrait of this type of community fast disappearing, but instead underline how a lived life rings out louder here and one doesn’t fall out of memory fast or gracefully. They’re either darkly comic, or touching, and Côté script and direction deftly navigates them all.  

Spooky, unnerving and inscrutable, Ghost Town Anthology sees the supernatural injected into a socially conscious work on the angst that’s taken hold in the diminished countryside, and its ensemble performance sheds a small light on a place whose outlooks grow dimmer by the day.

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