The prolific Canadian director Denis Côté has a new film out, entitled (in English; see below for more on this) Ghost Town Anthology (2019), which has been shown on the festival circuit around the world, and is as expectedly unexpected as his earlier works, which include such superb and unsettling films as Boris Without Béatrice (2016), Joy of Man’s Desiring (2014), Curling (2010), Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013) and Drifting States (2005).
They’re all absolutely personal films, in which he answers to no one but himself, which is in itself a refreshing change from traditional studio product. They’re also all “slow burn” films, in which Côté is in no hurry to advance the plot, but rather allows the atmosphere to gradually take hold, until the theoretical distance between the viewer and film almost vanishes.
In Ghost Town Anthology, his most directly supernatural film, the dead inhabitants of a small village in the Canadian wilderness start coming back to life, but not in the usual Night of the Living Dead fashion. In Côté’s film, the dead return not to threaten the living, but rather to remind them that they’re still a presence on earth, and that the boundary line between life and death is very thin indeed. This interview was conducted on April 28, 2020.
Your new film is called Répertoire des villes disparues, which has been translated into English as Ghost Town Anthology (2019). But the original title might be more accurately rendered as Directory of Vanished Cities. It’s film in which the dead return to life in a very small Canadian town – would it be fair to say that both the city, and all the people in it, living and dead, have in a sense already vanished from society even as the film begins?
We tried tons of different titles in English. Everything sounded a little ‘heavy’ and couldn’t convey the poetry of the French title. A filmmaker fried came up with the English title, and we liked the ambiguity of it. The ‘dead’ coming back are the dormant conscience of the village. They are both the past and future of our rural regions in Canada, the areas we pay no attention to and that we allow to die through our, and their own, indifference. The dead come back to warn the living. They seem to say, “If you do nothing with this memory, this history of your town and this territory, we will take it back.” So, yes, in that sense, they were somehow dead already.
What attracted you to Laurence Olivier’s book in the first place? You’ve turned down the chance to do more conventional horror movies, but you finally take a step into the supernatural with this film. How did you go about adapting Olivier’s text?
Laurence Olivier’s book is a poetic collection of slices of life and disjointed stories, and I tried to keep its spirit. Changes and tears in the social fabric are fascinating phenomena, and I designed a story with holes in it where the supernatural could creep in, bringing multiple anticlimaxes. It’s not a complex script, but I enjoy playing with tone; I like when things aren’t easy to define or categorize. Essentially, I wanted to write a script about the “Other” and the fear it inspires. I took a lot of liberties from Laurence’s material. She was fine with those liberties.
You’re a French Canadian filmmaker above all other considerations, it seems to me, really tied to the culture of your homeland, most specifically Quebec. What does the fictional very small town of Irénée les Neiges, where the film takes place, signify for you?
I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive to Quebec, but I am quite critical of the vaguely xenophobic behaviour that surrounds me. I’m struck by the opposition to diversity as well as the paucity of cultural offerings outside urban areas. Even in the cities, whether it be among film lovers or other cultural activities, anti-intellectualism and a lack of curiosity are gaining ground every day. I think if I was American, the film would be even more explicit on that subject, but I think of this film as a metaphorical reaction to our local reality. Irénée-les-Neiges can be any village or small Québécois town.
You start the film with a suitably bleak landscape, in a static shot that lingers for a while, which is suddenly interrupted by a car crashing into a concrete embankment, as Simon Dubé (Philippe Charette) apparently commits suicide – it’s a brutal opening, but also seems to have a sense of deadpan humour. Would you agree?
There’s some deadpan comedy in the film of course, like in all my films. I see the opening like an homage to those “B” horror movies in which the big opening event opens the ‘Gates of Hell,” so to speak. It reminds me of City of the Living Dead (1980) by Lucio Fulci, in which a priest hangs himself in the first minutes of the film. It doesn’t mean much, but it’s a sort of horror film code: now the gates are open and we can have some fun. It’s a way of opening your arms to upcoming illogical events and phenomena.
Four children wearing obscure masks almost immediately appear at the site of the crash; we will later discover they are the ghosts of four children who were murdered by their father years before. As they dance around, are they in fact celebrating the fact that Simon has joined them in the world of the dead?
You could say that! (laughs) They are the first manifestation of death or the ‘undead’ in the film, but the viewer doesn’t know this yet. The slow death of rural communities is slowly sucking the blood of the youth in the area. It was important to start like that. I got inspired watching creepy folk art and some work from Diane Arbus, kids wearing paper bag masks to celebrate Halloween.
When Simon kills himself, his mother Gisèle (Josée Deschênes), father Romuald (Jean-Michel Anctil) and older brother Jimmy (Robert Naylor) are all left with the collateral damage of his death, and cope with it in different ways. Gisèle tries to soldier on; her husband, Romuald, says he’s going out for cigarettes and instead vanishes into the wilderness, never to return (at least alive), but Jimmy seems the most invested in finding out what happened and why. Can you comment on the way each character deals with Simon’s death?
It’s difficult in the writing and editing process to find the right balance, and to find an elegant way to transition from one character’s fate to another’s, from one tone to another, since there’s very little opportunity to become attached to anyone in particular. My villagers all had a daily routine, and a certain comfort level before Simon’s unexpected and sudden death. I decided to change their relationship to everyday life by inviting a kind of ultimatum into the village. But this ultimatum is only slightly alarming. Everyone seems to get used to the bizarreness that settles into the town. The Dubé family is directly affected and each member finds a way to cope with grief. Others in the story represent other ways of dealing with the situation.
There are only 215 people in the town, and it’s both isolated and insular. The landscape of the town is forbidding, with constant snow and occasional power outages, and they’re deeply suspicious of outsiders. The mayor, an officious woman named Simone Smallwood (Diane Lavallée) is offered an outside grief counsellor, but refuses to cooperate – and when the counsellor does arrive, she’s Muslim, and is initially shunned. What does this say about the inhabitants of the town?
The rise of populism in the media, the migrant crisis, the reluctance to be open to other people and identitarian closure are all themes that interest me. I needed to find ways to film and talk about the theme of xenophobia. What I like with the secondary character of Yasmina is that at first she is seen as a sort of abstract threat, but in the end, she is part of the solution and joins the villagers in trying to fight the enigma.
Unlike a traditional horror film, this is more or less a genre bending exercise, in which a sense of disquiet is what you’re after more than the usual jump scares. And you do a lot with very little; sounds coming from within a house that shouldn’t be heard; a pair of anonymous feet on a stairwell; a group of four masked children running around throughout the film as a sort of silent Greek chorus. And yet the film builds to a deeply disturbing climax. How did you go about building the atmosphere here?
At first, I thought of the many times I’ve been asked to make a horror film. I started down that road, but I gradually shifted toward a rural tale that straddles the line between social realism and the supernatural. I prefer to distort the rules of genre film rather than follow them. In the end, the film uses metaphor and explores themes that interest me, instead of turning into a zombie movie or a horror film full of easy jump scares.
The movie asks more questions than it answers, which is my signature. I did the same thing in Curling and Vic+Flo Saw A Bear. Those who follow my work have learned not to expect ready-made answers or to be hit over the head with a message. You have to enjoy getting lost and swimming in ambiguity without the promise of an epiphany. The journey is always more interesting than the destination.
François Messier-Rheault shot the film in Super 16mm, for a raw and grainy look; indeed, it reminds me a bit of Blair Witch Project in its stripped down intensity. It’s almost, from time to time, as if this were a documentary of the events, rather than a staging of them. And yet there’s a sense of stillness in each shot, as if both the audience, and the residents of the town, are waiting for the next unsettling event. It reminds me a lot of the 1940s horror films of Val Lewton, who suggested horror rather than showing it – would you agree?
I wanted to deviate from the formal authority of my earlier films. The agony of Irénée-les-Neiges had to flow through the filmmaking process. I didn’t want to plan as much or box my actors in. The filming was freer. I didn’t impose strict limits or guidelines on François. I didn’t want to embellish the town’s fate, because there’s nothing to embellish. Raw, memorable, loose… These are all adjectives that were part of our discussions. I feel as though this film is a bridge between my documentaries, which are pretty bare bones, and my dramas, which are more robust and assiduously made. This middle ground pleases me a great deal.
As the film progresses, we get to know each of the protagonists a little bit better – both the living and the dead. Jimmy sees the ghostly figure of Simon one night at the local skating rink; town eccentric and relative newcomer Adèle (Larissa Corriveau) hears things at night when there’s no one there; Louise (Jocelyne Zucco) is the town gossip; Pierre (Hubert Proulx) and his girlfriend Camille (Rachel Graton) contemplate taking over an abandoned house where a series of horrific murders occurred years ago. It’s a complex fabric, and yet it’s played out with simple directness – could you speak to this?
Again, I had to find balance with 10 different figures of the town and 10 different ways of tackling the issues of xenophobia, lack of openness, slow disappearance of certain values, impoverishment of rural settings and this new reality with the dead coming back to haunt people’s consciences. Adèle is the ‘idiot of the village’ if we see her as the most literary figure of the film. The Dubé family is about grief. The young couple is about economic perspectives. The baby boomer couple would sell anything to keep their routine as it is. The mayor is my authority figure and has to glue the town together and she’s struggling. I had to make sure all these characters were a different side of the whole complex problem of the fictitious town.
There’s also, it seems to me, a link to Night of the Living Dead, in that the dead of Irénée les Neiges are indeed returning to life, but rather than trying to kill and/or eat the inhabitants of the town, they seem more intent on simply reminding the townspeople of their existence – their lives in the past, which now extend into the present. When the grief counsellor holds a town meeting to explain what’s happening, the citizens more or less take this in, and then continue on with their lives. Do you believe the dead are always with us?
I was asked that question few times during Q&As around the world. I’d like to think we’re not alone, and I’d also like to think that spirits are looking over us and are protecting us, looking at all our mistakes and unjustified fears. I’m not a religious person, but I still like the idea.
This seems especially true when the ghost of the father who murdered his four children appears at the end of the film, accompanied by the children he killed. Pierre, who had been thinking of renovating the house, sees them, but rather than being terrified, apologizes for disturbing them, and acknowledges them as the true owners of the house. So in a sense, death is simply a change in a state of existence; one corporeal, and one non-corporeal. Do you agree?
I really would like to believe in the idea of death being a happy continuation of life, a state in which we can still look at what’s happening in the world but without having the power to intervene. It’s not resurrection, it’s not a spiritual reading. It’s more like a ‘game’.
There’s also the question of leaving the small town for the big city of Quebec – there isn’t much to hold them here; the mine has closed, the town seems to be dying, and by the end of the film, it seems that more and more of the dead have reappeared in the midst of the town, to the point where there are more “living dead” than “living people.” Why do people stay in such a limited environment, and what is your fascination with this?
That could be my condescending artist’s perspective talking. When researching for the film and visiting locations, I could see that most people we met were genuinely uninterested by cinema, art or culture in general, as if they were abandoned by culture in any form, and what regular TV gives them is what they will take. We tried to get them interested in the arts, but culture was the least of their interests. It seemed that culture, art, cinema, theatre are Montreal things.
It’s not that I judge these people, but we must face reality: most of these rural communities are OK with having no access to culture. Entertainment can be fine, but the word “Culture” seems to have lost its’ meaning and value for those living in the hinterlands. You could also say that nobody makes an effort to bring them “Culture” but in the end, the problem bites its own tale. So in a way, the Dubé mother and son leaving the community is a way of saying that ‘Life is elsewhere’. And as an artist, if you ask me, life is where “Culture” is grown and shared.
Towards the end of the film, Adèle is suddenly seen floating high above the earth, which seems a direct reference to Pasolini’s Teorema. It’s a stunning effect, and yet I was surprised to see that you highlight this sequence in the film’s trailer, complete with a shot of the crane that’s hoisting her into the sky, the camera crew shooting the sequence, and even a brief non-sequitur cutaway to a shot of a woodchuck scampering across the snow, complete with the title “WOODCHUCK” superimposed over the image, almost like the anarchic sensibility of Jonas Mekas’ Guns of The Trees (1961) or the early films of Richard Lester. What’s going on here?
The trailer is the work of genius filmmaker Matthew Rankin. He was free to do what he wanted. So he did! (laughs). Adèle is the idiot of the village. I created her and imagined her like a hub, a converging force of all the fears visiting the town. At some point, she’s so hypersensitive that her reaction is similar to those monks from the 14th or 15th centuries who entered a state of trance to connect more spiritually with the world. Some were known for their supposed levitating skills. I like the poetic idea that at some point, Adèle is so afraid of death (Heaven), so afraid of what’s happening in the town (Earth) that she has to take refuge somewhere in a safe in between: she levitates and she’s safe.
For all of the deadpan humour, there is a sense of genuine loss and sadness in the film, but it’s seen through a very punk lens – mortality exists, people die, towns die, families break up, but life goes on – we adapt. Is this more or less your guiding philosophy?
It is. I’m very pragmatic and I believe in people’s resilience, and in fatality. I’m not a sentimental person and I’m not a preacher. Human beings are beautiful when they make mistakes, and also when they repeat mistakes. You can’t teach them new habits all that much. I’ve made a few films on that subject. Fear and stubbornness make you do surprising things.
And at the end, Romuald and Simon – father and son – are reunited in death, as Romuald freezes to death, and joins Simon on the other side of life. The dead don’t speak in this film; they simply make their presence known. But it seems as if they’ve achieved a state of stability, lack of care, and peace in death that none of the living characters are capable of. Do you agree?
Absolutely. It comes back to this adaptation to fatality. It could be seen as a little nihilistic, but I disagree. They didn’t abandon life. They are not ‘happy in death’. It’s more poetic than that. They are finding solace, redemption, and wisdom: they are ready now to observe the world. For me, it’s soothing.
Now that we’re firmly in the pandemic zone, can we talk a bit about your recent short film, cnfnmnt e/scp(i)sm (2020)? It’s obviously, as the title suggests, about the confinement we’re all experiencing as we “socially distance” and stay at home; it’s also about the search for escapism that we’re also dealing with, as the pandemic grinds on into an uncertain future. There’s a bit of porn watching on TV, desolate walks through an empty city with the sounds of sirens in the distance, then more TV clips with talking heads and conspiracy theorists, as well as a sequence from Frank Perry’s beautifully enigmatic film The Swimmer (1968), capped by a brutal sequence from Michelangelo Antonioni’s La notte (1961), shot right off the television screen. Could you say a few words about what you’re doing here?
This short film happened by accident, really. I was commissioned to do it by the Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece. At first I declined, because I have never edited a film myself, and couldn’t accept the idea of filming with my phone. Then I looked for very primitive editing tools, like Windows Video Editor or Movie Maker. I still didn’t think I would be able to do something of value, but then I shot something ridiculously quickly, just to play with and discover these tools.
Then I warned Thessaloniki that if I was able to make something, I wanted to do something very trashy, made in few hours, something that would bring me back to Wilcox (2019), my most recent film, about a drifter searching for some meaning in his life. I shot my direct environment without any aesthetic consideration in mind. I wanted it to be very intuitive. Then I struggled to understand the baby tools for 2 days, and completed it very rapidly.
In the end, the result is less important than the achievement. But basically, the film is my direct environment paired with a sort of feeling of helplessness: you get up, you read and watch any crap thrown at your face, try to do some exercise. At some point, my cinephilic passion kicks in and most of my nights are made of watching 2 or 3 films. I picked the last two I watched the night before: La notte and The Swimmer. It’s not an ‘important’ film. It’s more or less a reaction to the times we’re living through now.
You’ve made documentaries, some rather large-scale fiction films, and shorter works, and your films have been celebrated all over the world. How do you see yourself fitting into the new post-pandemic landscape that will emerge over the next few years? What projects, what ambitions do you have for your future as a filmmaker?
The world will not change with the pandemic. Human beings are resilient and don’t change because of a three month scare like that. I try to keep my writing routine intact, and I am now completing a new script that is ignoring the situation. I have health problems, so I can’t project myself too far into the future. The new film is an intimate journey with few characters, and I might follow that path for a while.