31 Jul 2017

A Ghost Story is plodding, pretentious - and totally haunting

1:08 pm on 31 July 2017

It's a slow burn - but give A Ghost Story a chance, writes Katie Parker.


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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

We're always told that, when our loved one's die, they will watch over us - and in the backs of our minds we kind of believe it. Even for those of us who subscribe to neither religious spirituality or hippy-dippy mumbo-jumbo, the idea that the dead (the nice ones, not the vengeful ones) are not gone but just hanging out, keeping an eye on us, sending good vibes, is a source of comfort and consolation - even when, consciously, we are not completely sure what we think of such things.

A Ghost Story takes that idea - and the comfort it might provide - and mines it for the melancholy meaning that rests uncomfortably at its heart.

Ostensibly about a young couple (I say ostensibly because Casey Affleck is 41), known only to us as C and M, A Ghost Story begins with the untimely death of the former. However, instead of shuffling off his mortal coil like a normal dead person, he returns to the marital home and stands around watching his widow - a typically wan Rooney Mara - wearing a sheet with eye holes.

As this suggests, director David Lowery’s take on grief is a highly stylised one. In his sweetly old school ghosty-ghost attire, C’s posthumous grief is both enjoyably novel and strangely traditional: haunting his former home, he is like a spirit from an urban legend, anchored in the world of the living by a love he cannot let go of.

And so he watches. Long, sombre, wordless scenes of watching: Mara changing the bed sheets; Mara cleaning the kitchen; Mara, somewhat infamously, eating a pie. To say A Ghost Story is a slow burn would be an understatement.  

Thankfully, however, Lowery is ambitious. Seemingly trapped in this fixed point in space, but not time, the ghost bears witness not only to his grief-stricken widow, but to the inhabitants that come after - and before - her tenancy at the property.

As such, A Ghost Story is not only concerned with the loss of one life, or of C and M’s relationship, but of anything that we consider permanent - and the corresponding idea of whether history and legacy is meaningful or even possible.

It’s a nuanced point that is at once made too subtly and too bluntly: A series of lovely, harrowing, yet opaque scenes ruminating on the idea of loss, inexplicably interrupted midway through so that an unidentified minor character can deliver a monologue passionately explaining the film’s subtext.

For a film otherwise at such pains to tell its story visually, wordlessly and intuitively, it is an unfortunate misstep that undermines a great deal of Lowery’s cinematic cleverness.

Having said that, this probably won’t be what makes or breaks the film for a lot of audiences, and perhaps the most divisive thing about A Ghost Story is how terribly, terribly sad it is. Or is it?

I cried, steadily and continuously, through pretty much the entire film - which for me is usually a plus. Crying about something that’s not my life? Great. But even though the kind of crying I did during A Ghost Story (dignified, ladylike, cheek rolling weeping just FYI) was enjoyably cathartic, it was a strange kind of sadness.

Is the film sad, or does it just ask that we look at sad things? Did I feel for the characters, or is the mere concept and enactment of bereavement something so inherently horrible that I can hardly look at it without crying?  

Of course, you could ask this of any tearjerker film. Or any film that makes you feel anything tbh. But, in the case of A Ghost Story, it seems worth considering if only because it is so single-minded in the way it asks us to consider, not the particulars of its story of love and death, but the universally tragic condition of the ephemeral.

With little characterisation, detail, or even proper names given to the lead performers, A Ghost Story is insistent that its significance lies in a greater cosmic existential plane, one to which the ghost finds he has unique access.

For some this will be fine: the couple are like a blank slate onto which Lowery can project his chosen themes, their story an empty vessel to be filled with his various philosophical ponderings. For others it will be a sign of self-indulgent, pretentious, even lazy filmmaking.

But, while it sometimes feels like a short film that goes on much too long, I would hesitate to dismiss A Ghost Story out of hand.

If you’re looking to get to grips with a couple torn apart by circumstance, M and C’s union might leave you feeling a little hollow - I found out more about the people sitting behind me in the Civic than I did about these two - but as a larger rumination on why people like me get teary eyed at the thought of even the most boring couple being separated, it's surprisingly rewarding.

Love and loss may be fairly well trod terrain, but by considering them on a macro scale - rather than within the insular, contained, claustrophobic narratives typically used to imbue romantic love with significance - Lowery does manage to create something strange, new and, yes, haunting.

A Ghost Story is currently screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.