The French-Canadian Denis Côté is one of those directors whose idiosyncratic visions have been revered on the festival circuit, yet who's never quite gained a foothold on UK screens. Curling, his Locarno-feted drama of 2010, only landed on these shores ten days ago via a Second Run Blu-Ray; 2013's Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, much admired at Berlin, at least played that year's London Film Festival before disappearing from circulation. Côté remains a tricky sell, but lockdown has apparently opened a gap in the market: this week, MUBI UK is showcasing his latest film Ghost Town Anthology, an adaptation of a novel by Laurence Olivier (not that one) that offers a portrait of a snowy, windswept small town being emptied out one way or another. The credits have barely rolled when the population is decreased by one, courtesy of a car accident that might be a suicide bid, and leads, either way, to the death of a young man. Côté is less interested in the cause than the effects, specifically how this tragedy fragments the community as it did the car's windscreen - a fragmentation reflected in the film's own form. For the remaining ninety minutes, GTA flits between the town's inhabitants: the bereaved Dubé family, the highly strung woman (Larissa Corriveau) who becomes convinced her home and neighbourhood have become haunted, the masked figures (itinerants? Kids? Something less earthly?) seen making merry in the surrounding fields. Watching over them all - like the least interested (or most self-interested) of landlords - is the local mayor (Diane Lavallée), who has the werewithal to note in her funeral address than "for a house of cards to crumble, one need only remove one card", yet blithely dismisses an offer an outside psychiatric help for her constituents, insisting "We can sort our own problems. We're all adults."
The cold outside corresponds to the pronounced chill of Côté's interiors. It's quickly apparent that GTA is not going to be a film in which problems are overcome by collective action and a whole lot of small-town cheer. (Comparisons have been drawn with Twin Peaks, though Côté generally adopts a more naturalistic approach than David Lynch: the film struck me as a good deal closer to Atom Egoyan's Russell Banks adaptation The Sweet Hereafter, with tantalising hints of the Robin Campillo movie that birthed the TV series Les Revenants.) We're struck first of all by the overwhelming whiteness of the town's demographic make-up: how these characters flinch around non-Caucasian faces, how curtly the mayor packs off a headscarfed psychiatrist. What Olivier and Côté look to be getting at is small-town exceptionalism: that belief that we take care of ourselves (and ourselves alone), a line of thinking that increasingly looks like the second biggest plague on the world as it enters this century's third decade. What we're here to witness is a dwindling of promise and spirit: this town starts out small, like a town in a snowglobe, and in the absence of the affection that might bond it together, it breaks up only further. Family ties are loosened, houses torn down; cinematographer François Messier-Rheault's granular images themselves suggest something coming apart; and as the wind whips up anew and the lights and heat go out, some townsfolk begin to vacate their senses. It might all seem like an arty horror movie, if it wasn't playing out so much like a scaled-up science experiment.
The froideur is rigorously maintained. You could stick a thermometer in any of these scenes and, though it might crack, it would take something like the same emotional temperature. I couldn't blame you if you felt that was a limitation: after 45 minutes of muted whites, greys and beiges, your eyes may start to long for even the faintest dash of Almodóvarian red, with its insinuation of human warmth. (If you're looking for something to pep you up right now, this would not be the film.) As a picture of desolation and grief, however, Ghost Town Anthology proves quietly forceful: all its negative and blank space really does imprint itself on the imagination after a while. There's something very persuasive in the film's idea of tragedy as a weather front. With the deceased's body cooling off - awaiting a spring burial, when the ground might be more accepting - these characters pass into a ghostly limbo, unsure how to respond to this loss, or to one another; all they can do is wrap themselves up, hunker down, and hope and/or pray for better times ahead. (Super-8 images that might also be memories offer fleeting flickers of optimism: briefly, we see blue skies, and - gasp - even evidence the sun once shone on this cold, hard place.) You'll have to navigate your own path through the final act, which steps firmly into the genre territory the rest of the movie has been tiptoeing around - this, too, comes as a rupture, from the low-key MO that has sustained the film up to that point - but Ghost Town Anthology gets more intriguing frame by frame, yielding at least one extraordinary image as the worst of this ice storm passes. Côté is a filmmaker worth bringing in from the cold.
Ghost Town Anthology is now streaming on MUBI UK.