Québecois filmmaker Denis Côté (Vic + Flo Saw A Bear) takes his time establishing the arresting premise of his latest feature, Ghost Town Anthology, even though the gist is right there in the English-language title. (In French, it’s called Répertoire Des Villes Disparues, which means basically the same thing but employs a different, less literal metaphor.) Set in the tiny burg of Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges, population 215, the movie opens with a tragedy, as a series of wintry establishing shots unexpectedly gets invaded by the horrific sight of a car swerving off the road and crashing headfirst, at high speed, into a big pile of cinder blocks. Everyone who lives there knew the driver—Simon Dubé (Philippe Charette), age 21—and Ghost Town Anthology spends its first half hour or so observing reactions to his death among family, friends, and passing acquaintances; the collective response to sudden death, combined with the frozen Canadian landscape, can’t help but recall Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. But then residents start hearing mysterious thumps in their homes, catching glimpses of strange figures. “Ghost town” takes on another meaning.
Still, this is by no means a horror movie, despite a few disquieting aspects. Côté adapted the screenplay from a novel by Laurence Oliver (just one “i”—not Laurence Olivier), but it nonetheless bears a notable resemblance to his previous films, which tend to be notable for their regional specificity and depictions of insular communities. At the same time, though, these characters are somewhat sketchily drawn, at least on screen. Members of Simon’s immediate family have the most cause to feel haunted by his death, yet are comparatively uninteresting (perhaps because the book’s interior monologues didn’t translate); that’s especially true of Simon’s father, Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil), who leaves home shortly after the film begins and spends most of it wandering alone in the woods, generically distraught. More intriguing are such peripheral figures as the town mayor (Diane Lavallée), who treats offers of help from outsiders with defensive hostility, and Adèle (Larissa Corriveau), the perpetually anxious “welfare girl” (as one neighbor refers to her), who’s the first person in town to notice that something extremely bizarre is going on.
The gradual, matter-of-fact way that Côté transforms Ghost Town Anthology into an actual ghost story is quite impressive. Initially, it’s Simon who appears to be silently lurking in the distance, but other “strangers” (as they’re pointedly called) soon show up—not to threaten, exactly, but simply to take up space. What’s more, it emerges that this phenomenon isn’t restricted to Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges, but is happening throughout Francophone Canada, albeit not in any of its major cities. That last detail, along with some on-the-nose dialogue throughout, makes the film’s ostensible subtext dispiritingly blunt: The ghosts symbolize the perceived futility of life in a “ghost town” like this one, which derived its economic sustainability from a mine that’s long since been closed. (In a nice touch, the only children ever seen, all of whom constantly wear creepy Purge-style masks while playing, turn out to be long-ago murder victims; the town effectively has no future.) But other aspects—what becomes of Adèle, in particular—are gratifyingly mysterious and open to interpretation, while Côté’s decision to shoot the entire movie handheld, but with mostly static compositions, creates a potent feeling of almost subliminal instability. Admittedly, those seeking actively frightening undead figures should look elsewhere. Then again, what’s more unnerving right now than people standing at least six feet away from you, not doing much of anything?