A Ghost Story (2017)

David Lowery | 1hr 32min

Even before Casey Affleck’s character C passes away in a car collision, it feels as if we are watching the events of A Ghost Story unfold from behind a thin gauze. The unusually boxy aspect ratio with rounded corners that David Lowery filters the film through gives the impression of an old-fashioned camera viewfinder, often set back in static, detached wide shots captured in a shallow focus. Without an extremely minimalist approach to dialogue, the material world becomes a quiet limbo of poignant self-reflection, inhabited by a silent ghost caught between planes of existence. There is no horror that comes from this premise though – A Ghost Story is exactly what its name suggests, using its narrative form to watch grief, time, and existence play out from the perspective of the titular spectre.

C’s new, ghostly appearance would almost be comical in its setup if it wasn’t played with such melancholy. His partner, M, arrives at the hospital to confirm the identity of the body under a white sheet, and then as if to instinctually suppress the heartache, she pulls the sheet back up above his face and solemnly departs. From this point on it never comes off his body, covering him like a home-made Halloween costume, though also visually concealing any traces of his old identity. Reading his facial expressions is impossible, and even body language is hard to gage when he isn’t moving his arms. In the mind of a bereaved M trying to move on with her life, his presence is a haunting symbol of grief, far removed from the man she used to know. He is not quite a monster like the Babadook, actively trying to tear her apart, but he rather manifests as a colourless, shapeless, passive entity, marked by the negative space he numbly inhabits.

The death and rebirth of C, held in this melancholy frame created from layers of curtains and doorways.
A very simple character design, almost comical, but it serves its purpose in suppressing C’s individuality.

With limited ability to interact with the real world, time moves slowly for C. Lowery delineates the first half of A Ghost Story with long, lingering takes, some lasting almost up to ten minutes as we simply sit and watch Rooney Mara’s M suffer through her grief. As we peer through doorway frames and slowly pan across the setting, we too become an invisible entity existing at the edges of her periphery, sluggishly dragging ourselves from one room to the next while she puts herself back together, finds new love, and eventually moves out. Still, the expressionless ghost of C remains, dealing with his own grief as the world he is familiar with changes bit by bit.

A good number of shots framed through windows and entryways, confining M to a single location.
The longest shot in the film held for almost ten minutes as we watch C devour this pie out of grief, all the while M lingers in the background just on the frame’s peripheral.

It is at A Ghost Story’s midpoint where the careful control that Lowery exerts over his pacing reveals itself more clearly, rhythmically accelerating its heavy lethargy until we tangibly feel the past slipping away. His commitment to slow, real-time scenes early on makes the shift even more disorientating, passing through the single minute that passes between M moving out and strangers moving in with barely a disruption. Elsewhere, Lowery’s elliptical editing takes shortcuts between weeks, months, and years, and graphic match cuts find common threads between the present and the distant future. By the time we find ourselves in an advanced, sprawling metropolis standing on the grounds of C’s demolished country house, there is nothing left of his modest life. Still, that anguish lives on, bearing witness to a shifting world that doesn’t return the recognition of its quiet existence.

Lowery transposes the feeling of grief onto film, letting time slip away as the world moves on, and then suddenly we’re centuries into the future – but the heartache is still there.

In skilfully translating the overwhelming, inert feeling of grief into the language of film with such little dialogue, Lowery effectively follows through on the creative premise he sets out, slicing through time like a sharp razor that can cut everything but the eternal emptiness that silently hides in the corner. That heartache doesn’t just travel in a single direction here though, but it echoes out across history as well, right back to the foundations of the house being built in the 19th century, and eventually doubling back on itself to the moment it was born at C’s mortal death. In frustration, the ghost C strikes a cluster of notes on the piano in the middle of night, recalling the same noise which woke him and his wife many centuries ago. This grief has been haunting the world not just before he died, but before he was even born, running threads of fatalism and nihilism deep into C’s very existence, and poignantly recognising the inevitability of its expiry.

Perhaps we can identify the key to his escape via the monologue that Lowery lands at about the halfway mark of A Ghost Story, offering Will Oldham an entire scene to wax lyrical about the tiny remnants of humanity which carry on through collective memories, and their ultimate obliteration. For C, that remnant is a note stuffed in a wall left behind by M as a token of her life in the old country house. One must wonder whether it is tying C to the location against his will, or whether the pull it has over him is purely emotional, keeping him from finding any sort of resolution. Given his conscious decision to not step into the light when he first dies, the latter looks like the more likely possibility. In A Ghost Story, resolution is found not in being released from life, or even in trying to preserve our immortal legacy, but rather by looking into and understanding the minds of our loved ones. Perhaps there may come a point when we are no longer remembered, but Lowery ultimately has no qualms about the fragility of human existence, contentedly accepting its insignificance and simply pondering – maybe eternity is overrated.

M always looking through windows, out at a world he can’t be a part of.

A Ghost Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Happy End (2017)

Michael Haneke | 1hr 50min

At its best, Happy End is a summation of every significant idea that Michael Haneke has ever examined throughout his career, from the suppression of French bourgeoisie guilt in Cache to the chilling sociopathy of children in The White Ribbon. At its worst, it never quite escapes from under the cloud of any of these films, spreading itself too thinly across so many subplots that it struggles to become its own cinematic statement. It takes until one of the final scenes between 13-year-old Eve and her grandfather, Georges, for the film to effectively congeal into anything more substantial. As the two sit across from each other, unsettling confessions begin to spill out, and for the first time there is a mutual acknowledgement between characters of the depraved darkness which is only barely obscured beneath their stoic, loveless expressions.

Even as these two generations open up to each other though, Haneke never unites them a single shot the way one might expect from a union of characters. Like so many other conversations in Happy End, each actor is kept isolated in their own frames, entirely cut off from their scene partners. The cold loneliness felt all throughout the film has a quietly crushing effect, leaving behind long stretches of silence that force us to simply sit with the visual horror of a dying hamster, a collapsing retaining wall, and an aggressive online affair.

And then there is Haneke’s violence, landing with muted thumps that draw as much attention to the sadistic intent of its perpetrators as it does to the physical pain exacted upon their victims. He is not one to push our attention around with moving cameras and cutaways, or to didactically carve out moral statements from the sins and virtues of his characters. When one young man is beaten by another outside an apartment building and when a mother breaks her son’s finger to stop him from acting out, he instead stifles these acts of brutality by staging them just offscreen, or otherwise relegating them to the background of long, static shots. Within the upper-middle class of French society that the Laurent family inhabits, violence is a useful tool that they would rather not directly acknowledge. In fact, the only offender who does face consequences in the film is the underprivileged son of an injured labourer, clearly unable to afford the same legal protection that keeps Haneke’s wealthier characters safe from repercussions.

With misanthropy like this being allowed to fester within the Laurent family and no threat of accountability, one could even assume it is hereditary, intensifying with each passing generation. We do feel real heartbreak for Georges when he admits to mercy killing his sick wife, but this almost feels trivial next to Eve’s poisoning and incidental murder of her own mother, Anaïs. In the film’s opening sequence, we watch through her phone’s voyeuristic lens as she records Anaïs from a distance gradually growing sluggish, until she falls asleep on a couch. The livestreamed comments she writes with these videos are disturbingly heartless, speaking of her mother’s coldness that has bred an even worse contempt in her.

When we return to Eve’s phone video again at Happy End’s close, there is something a little more sympathetic behind its intent. She, more than anyone, understands her grandfather’s suffering, and so she becomes an accomplice in his attempted suicide, letting his wheelchair roll down a ramp into the ocean where he hopes to drown. With the phone once again acting as a barrier between her and her dying relative, the detachment is still present, but there is also some shared relief between them that neither needs to pretend to be anything but their own angry, disdainful selves anymore. Her aunt’s horrified face as she rushes past the camera towards a sinking Georges in the very final second of the film says it all. For those with pristine reputations to uphold, these displays of cruelty and misery are best kept on in the inside, never to be shared with the outside world. To Haneke, this is both the curse and ultimate hypocrisy of living a privileged life.

Happy End is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Lynne Ramsay | 1hr 35min

The prisons which Lynne Ramsay’s characters trap themselves inside are not made of material, but of time and memories, reverberating with echoes of past traumas and in the case of Joe, teasing him with visions of potential futures. As he lumbers through everyday life caring for his elderly mother, he disappears into himself as a hulking mass of emptiness, and then when he sets himself to work he transforms into a force of pain and justice. His targets? Human traffickers, specifically those who kidnap and profit off young girls. For a man who lives in persistent agony and possesses the talent to exact that suffering upon others, the cause towards which he channels it is surprisingly noble, though given how closely he identifies with the corrupt world around him, these missions to restore its lost innocence touchingly point towards a shred of hope for his own salvation.

Saving young victims of trafficking is only one path out of his mental prison though. The other is far blunter, and much easier. Just as Joe is plagued by visions of Nina, one specific girl he has been tasked with rescuing, so too does he indulge in fantasies of his own suicide, imagining the sort of release that would come with letting it all go. Equally as immediate as his own prospective futures is his tragic past, punctuating the narrative in bursts of flashbacks that reveal glimpses of an abusive childhood he continues to re-enact in the present, wrapping himself up and suffocating in plastic just as his father used to do to him, all the while Ramsay reveals the direct parallels between these timelines in graphic match cuts.

Ramsay continues to prove her credentials as one of the great editors working today, give us these short, sharp bursts of traumatic flashbacks that also work as match cuts.

Like all of her films before, You Were Never Really Here is far less concerned with crafting a plot and dialogue than it is creating an impressionistic sense of a lonely, disorientated mind out of montages, leaping across time in non-linear structures that destabilise any notion of objective reality. With such a minimalist screenplay, Ramsay frees herself up to follow in the steps of such experimental silent filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein by building hypnotic rhythms and powerful visual juxtapositions in the editing room, drawing us into a bitter nightmare of hallucinations and flashbacks quietly spinning out of control.

Arresting images such as these becoming part of Ramsay’s ethereal, dreamy atmosphere.

Inhabiting the vessel of trauma that Ramsay’s restless style whirls around is Joaquin Phoenix, whose aptitude for psychologically broken characters takes on entirely different dimensions here than we have seen before. His face is covered in shaggy, grey hair, serving the same purpose as his baggy clothing and low-profile cap in concealing the shape and identity of the man who lies beneath. Neither fat nor muscular seem like proper descriptions here, but he is heavy, laying his whole body into physical confrontations and choosing the blunt force of a hammer over other more practical weapons. Few of Joe’s opponents pose any real challenge to his raw physical power, and we come to accept this to the point that Ramsay eventually excludes his fights altogether as he infiltrates a mansion where Nina is being held captive. Instead, we simply cut between the black-and-white surveillance footage of his determined trudge through the halls and the quiet aftermath of each encounter along the way, his enemies silently lying in pools of their own blood.

Ramsay’s use of negative space in framing Joaquin Phoenix superbly underscores Joe’s own emptiness.

Aside from one ambush that takes him unaware, it is evident that taking out these corrupt men poses little challenge to Joe, leaving the film open to a more internal conflict that pitches him against his own self-destructive psyche. Inside it, a haunting sound design of panicked whispers and Jonny Greenwood’s score of uneven, percussive beats melds with such perfect unease into Ramsay’s fragmented editing style, while in her mise-en-scène she continues to frame Joe in all sorts of mirrors that seem to reflect broken or incomplete visions of himself back at him. At times it is all too easy to sink into the ambient sea of bloody violence and death that she crafts here, but just as our troubled protagonist cannot escape those unexpected, sharp flashes of trauma, we too never fully acclimate to his ongoing pain. It is that possibility of just one more young life being saved which pulls us along, raising us up to the surface when the depression takes hold, and which offers a revitalised sense of purpose for even the most hopelessly imprisoned minds.

Fragmented mirrors and distorted reflections a recurring motif throughout Ramsay’s mise-en-scène. A truly internal character study of trauma and self-punishment.

You Were Never Really Here is currently streaming on Kanopy, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.