A Ghost Story, dir. David Lowery│ Who is going to turn up at our funeral? What are they going to remember? What are we leaving behind when we die? Questions everybody has asked themselves before, I assume. But who are we to claim significance over the 100 billion other people that have lived on this planet so far?
The idea of having something to be remembered for by the people we cared about, and the future generations is an essential motivator of leading what they call a good life (well, that and the fear of being cooked in a cauldron by Satan).
Casey Affleck must learn how small he is against the scale of time in David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story, screened as one of the highlights at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, bringing the recently Oscar-awarded Affleck to the Czech mountainside.
After losing his life in a car accident, a man returns to the house he lived in with his wife (Rooney Mara) in the shape of a ghost dressed in a simple white bed sheet, more specifically, a shroud. But instead of haunting her in the expected ghost story tradition, he quietly watches her dealing with the aftermath of his death, moving on and eventually moving out. Yet he stays, realizing that life goes on without him while he is still clinging to the house and his love.
The film seems to be about a living person overcoming grief at first, but it leaves the P.S. I Love You ground soon, to become more like The Canterville Ghost, since it is all about the ghost whose goofy dress and slow, dead-pan movements create an air of tragic comedy. That is where magic starts to happen: we don’t see a face, only a bed sheet standing still in an empty room and we feel for it. Maybe because we know it’s Casey Affleck beneath it (presumably, who actually knows?). Maybe because the film uses every tool in the box to make us see more than just the ghost; to see with it, through it. The film’s Academy ratio matches the narrow vision of the long vertical eye holes in the cloth. And if there was one word to describe the entire film, it would be verticality. We look through doors and windows, frames restricting the limited sight even further. We only get to peek at the different people inhabiting the house over the years, until its demolished and shot up into the sky as an office building. The film takes it even further and plunges into the past, only to come full circle in the end. The house is the constant presence, and time is the dimension changing around it – in both directions – yet something stays within the house. One could go into a very esoteric discussion about energy here.
“Why do you like this house so much?”, Rooney Mara asks Casey Affleck at some point, and he answers: “History.”The inexplicable feeling of something of people’s lives lingering in the house.” We cannot see this hidden memory, but it wants to glue him to its walls. He counts on his partner to feel the same, but has to realize they want different things. Still, he ends up hoping and waiting for her to come back.
A personal story about a grieving ghost veers slowly away from the narrative, becoming more and more focused on a mere idea as the film progresses. The idea is illustrated by beautiful shots and music, but eventually it causes the film to become just that: an illustration. In the beginning, the scenes where the ghost can appear, observe and react give the film enough space to breathe. These episodes are cut shorter and shorter in the second half, leaving the ghost a passive and nearly motionless bystander, seemingly consumed by hopelessness but concurrently becoming a proxy for the main message. Seeing a bed sheet walk around a conference room full of business people has some comedy to it, but it’s a joke that can fill a short film but does not allow enough development to support a feature.
Halfway into the film, a party guest starts talking about leaving a mark on the world ultimately to be swallowed by the sun and implode. What would be the point then of having an idea, to have someone hum the melody you created, quote the piece you wrote, talk about the film you made? An idea vanishes as soon as no people are connected to it anymore.
Taking into account the fact that A Ghost Story is basically one idea, we cannot help but hold it to its own standard. Will it survive the imploding sun? Or will it vanish? Well, the film would claim the latter. It would also claim that it doesn’t matter.■
│In cooperation with│
A Ghost Story│ Director: David Lowery│ Screenplay: David Lowery│ Camera: Andrew Droz Palermo│ Editing: Daniel Hart│ Music: Daniel Hart│ Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Sephas Jr.│ Producer: Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Adam Donaghey│ Production Company: Sailor Bear / Zero Trans Fat Productions / Ideaman Studios│Country: USA │ Year: 2017 │ Running Time: 90 min │ International Sales: -│ Festival: Karlovy Vary IFF 2017│