2017 Sundance Film Festival London: A Ghost Story Review
"Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting." A quote from Virginia Woolf's short story, A Haunted House, opens up director David Lowery's contemplative reflection on time, love and legacy, echoing our tireless search to reconcile the intangible with the limitations of our physical world. Just how the spirits in Woolf's story searched for a connection lost forever in the memory a thousand kisses, A Ghost Story draws on our emotional desire to be remembered long after we have left this world. Despite the absurdity of Casey Affleck remaining under a bedsheet for three-quarters of the film, it gradually builds into a melancholic poem viewed through those two dark, cut out eyeholes.
The story begins in unassuming fashion settling into the relationship of C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). They argue as couples do occasionally but they are emotionally close and at ease with one another. An early scene indicates there may be some form of spectral presence in their home, although this not a horror film in a traditional sense, despite referencing brief genre tropes. C loses his life in an off-screen car crash, leaving a devastated M shocked and alone. Left for a moment with the body of her husband in the morgue, the camera continues to hold its gaze once she has covered his face with the sheet and left the room. Suddenly Affleck bolts upright on the gurney, the white bedsheet still draped over his bodily form, heading off into the hospital corridors, unseen by the patients and members of staff.
Whether it is the memory of his past life or a cosmic pull that draws him back to the home he once shared with M, the ghost of C returns to silently observe his grieving wife. Atmosphere and style continually take the lead ahead of sustained dialogue, perhaps exemplified best by Mara’s well-publicised pie-eating scene. While she devours the crust and its contents, C’s ghost stands quietly in the corner, aching to be near a love that can no longer be shared, while the simple act of eating a pie becomes a moment of heartbroken despair. This melancholy lingers in the air, drifting across the screen to permeate the limbo C is now unstuck within.
Lowery is not afraid to embrace the silliness of positioning such a defined Halloween icon as the main figure in his story, finding light touches of humour when C interacts with another ghost present in the adjacent house. Time rapidly moves on in a blink of an eye once M leaves the house for good. Before doing so, she writes an unseen note on a scrap of paper before folding it into the crack of a door frame, ensuring a piece of herself forever remains embedded within its structure. All C is able to do is witness this physical world passing by while new faces drift in and out of the house, their own experiences further shaping the lineage of history associated with the same space.
C’s story is boxed into the confines of the Academy ratio, softened by the rounded edges at each corner of the frame. Not only does it illustrate how trapped his ghost has become in this house but the dream-like cinematography transforms our view, as if we are watching still photographs map out these fragmented memories across time. Drawing on influences from filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Chantal Akerman, Lowery holds the camera in position for long static takes, peeling away the mystic layers to reveal a truthful and emotional honesty.
What started out as a self-financed, experimental idea for Lowery has blossomed into a beautifully meditative experience that stands out as his best film to date. Aided by Daniel Hart’s haunting score, the abstract yet intimate approach to these common themes ponders the depth and futility of our place within the universe. While time will eventually erode any legacy we desire to leave behind, just simply letting go places value in the meaning of the present.