The key to us city folk understanding small town life is not so much grasping the notion that there’s a lot less to do in these rural parts as it is grasping the notion that what little there is to do matters a lot more. Each morning, the citizens of bustling metropolises and isolated communities alike awake to the same sun, the cogs of their minds whirring at the same speeds, merely the level of information intake required of them over the following day differing. It was just a few weeks ago that a major junction close by my flat was cordoned off by police as the site of a fatal stabbing, and hardly a day goes by when I do think about that. A young man in a wintry Quebecois country town commits suicide in Denis Cote’s Ghost Town Anthology, apparently out of nowhere, and every last local is affected in some form or another. Even here, his loss to the town’s population is, numerically, insignificant, but it is emotionally cataclysmic, and it engenders changes in everyone’s individual and collective existences that none of them could have foreseen.
Cote has never been one to belabour the more sensational aspects of his movies, keeping their pointedly offbeat tendencies in sensible, restrained check. The empathy he harbours for the small-town folk of Ghost Town Anthology seems to inform every creative decision taken, even exhibiting patient understanding when revealing certain characters’ more contemptible qualities. He leads with that empathy, allowing harsher tones to permeate more gradually in his characterizations, applying them relatively evenly over his large ensemble and never permitting them to overwhelm the gentle compassion he establishes early and maintains throughout. This is not a movie lacking in sensational content, though, exploring the eeriness suggested by its title in certain developments handled with the right kind of casual, sensitive touch to ensure that it helps to inform the general artistic enterprise, rather than derail it. Cote’s stirring little stylistic flourishes are kept to an intriguing little murmur that they might be better integrated into the movie’s overall scheme and thus be accepted more easily by the audience. If there’s an air of unremarkableness about Ghost Town Anthology upon watching it, its seductive chilliness, formal excellence and emotional generosity leave a satisfying aftertaste.
Similarly better in the memory than in the moment is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, if only for the fact that it’s easier to ignore its glaring issues after the fact than during it. The prospect of M. Bonello going full freak on a dual-timeline voodoo possession / love story concept is most enticing, yet the actual movie of it is often far less enticing than savouring that prospect. Here is a director who could convince me to watch almost anything so long as he’s at the helm, steering the project through uniquely Bonellian straits, and indeed Zombi Child is unequivocally the work of his marvellous mind, but it’s a haphazard, half-formed work, a mish-mash of ideas both good and great, congruent and incongruent, old and new, united by a consistency of style that yet only serves some of those ideas well. And now I’m about to earn, sow and stitch my hypocrite badge, then mass produce it and sell it for an extortionate rate – I’ve long regarded every movie as being the perfect length for itself, as no individual moment in any movie is any less a part of that movie than any other individual moment. And while it’s not so much that there are specific scenes of Zombi Child I’d consider cutting (though there absolutely are!), it’s that it recalls a recent Bonello feature: Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera, whose supernatural quirks were kept to less than a quarter of this movie’s running time, and whose impact was much more than a quarter greater!
There is, alas, so much to this movie, so much to its every last shot, every last line of dialogue, that it’d no doubt become a far finer work upon closer inspection, though I can’t say I’d eagerly undertake such a task. History, philosophy, culture, art, science, religion, politics… Bonello is typically ambitious in what he aims to explore here, arguably more ambitious than ever before, but his explorations rarely amount to significantly more than just nodding his head in the direction of a topic before moving swiftly on. Sarah Winchester distilled its ideas down into mere suggestions, tantalising, while perhaps another advisable option might have been to supersize them, give them the breadth they need to make what is otherwise a thin, dissatisfying supernatural plot bear some proper heft. Zombi Child is all promise, very little delivery, and when a filmmaker is this good at promising this much (and has proven before his immense capacity to deliver as much), that makes it, inevitably, a sad disappointment.