A few weeks ago A Ghost Story was included in a list of ‘post-horror’ films in a Guardian piece by Steve Rose. Now it’s been released in the UK to some glowing reviews and some extravagant claims. I fear, however, that for many audiences it might provoke an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ response. Rose foresees this when he notes that another possible example of the trend, It Comes at Night (like A Ghost Story, given a 4 star review by the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw) has been denounced on social media. Rose suggests:
Mainstream moviegoers went in expecting a straight-up horror; they came out unsure about what they’d seen, and they didn’t like it.
The point being that a ‘post-horror film’ is not really a horror film at all. The director of A Ghost Story, David Lowery, is quoted by Rose as saying:
I wanted to engage with the archetypes and iconography of ghost films and haunted house movies, without ever crossing over into actually being a horror film.
Well, that seems clear enough. But what if you haven’t read the quote and all you see is a film poster for A Ghost Story with a load of 4 and 5 star review notices? You’d reasonably expect something that resembles a horror movie or at least an entertaining fantasy. My real concern is the implication of Rose’s statement above. If you are a mainstream movie fan, you won’t ‘get’ the post-horror film. This suggests a new form of cinema snobbery.
If you want to see the film, I suggest avoiding Peter Bradshaw’s review since he tells you most of the plot. I’ll just mention a few of the elements in the film. The single point that is emphasised in the poster, the trailer and all the promo pics is that Lowery’s ghost is represented by the white sheet of the traditional genre image with two eye holes that are disturbingly deep and dark. This seemingly substantial ghost moves slowly through every scene after the death of the Casey Affleck character early in the narrative – but it can’t be seen by others, only ‘felt’ by some. Affleck and Rooney Mara are a couple (the characters are not named) on the verge of moving out of a suburban house when an accident kills Affleck. The rest of the 90 minutes follows the ghost.
What follows is sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes potentially moving, sometimes irritating but often, I’m afraid, a bit boring. Lowery wants us to know that ghosts aren’t stuck in one time period, they exist ‘outside time’, so although the ghost doesn’t move that much, we can see it in different time periods. This is hardly a revolutionary idea but it does have possibilities for some kind of meditation on time. At one point, I did wonder if what I was watching was similar to the structural avant-garde films of the 1970s by artists like Hollis Frampton with Zorn’s Lemma in which images are repeated with slight variations and the viewer must spot the patterns or Michael Snow with Wavelength comprising a single ‘zoom in’ which nevertheless builds narrative tension. But I decided A Ghost Story wasn’t as interesting.
A Ghost Story does have its moments and the ‘mini lecture’ by Will Oldham in a party scene will be the test for most audiences. Oldham is an actor and musician, perhaps best known for his work in two Kelly Reichardt films. Like Reichardt in Meek’s Cutoff (2011), Lowery opts for an Academy ratio screen shape, but I’m not sure why. Reichardt’s films move slowly, but she shares a novelist’s ability to tell stories through nuances and tiny details. I didn’t get that from A Ghost Story. Here’s the US trailer. It indicates the interesting images and hints at some of the plot points, but it can’t really represent the slow pace of the narrative. If you want a horror film, I’d watch Get Out again. If it’s a romance you want, I’d try Maudie.
Like Gurinder Chadha, the co-writer and director of Qissa, Anup Singh, was born in East Africa into a family which had originally had its home in Rawalpindi in Northern Punjab before Indian Partition in 1947. Unlike Chadha he attended university in Bombay and then FTII in Pune for his film school. His approach to a film about Partition might therefore be expected to be different to Viceroy’s House, but also to have a personal dimension. Qissa is a co-production with a mixed crew and creative inputs from Europe and India. The film was shot in (Indian) Punjab after a long search for locations.
Introducing his film at HOME during the Indian Partition weekend, Anup Singh told us that ‘qissa‘ means a ‘tale’ – the kind of story that might be told in a community setting. He also suggested that many such tales involved lovers from different sides of a barrier such as a river. These stories would then involve various forms of ‘crossings’ or ‘transgressions’ as the lovers attempt to meet. Cue a very different kind of ‘Partition’ story.
The film is dominated by the central performance given by Irrfan Khan as Umber, the head of a Punjabi family whose village has been attacked at the time of Partition in 1947. It’s a tribute to both the director and the other excellent actors in the cast that this powerful central performance doesn’t derail the narrative as a whole. After committing an act of revenge, Umber moves his family from what has become ‘Pakistani Punjab’ to ‘Indian Punjab’ and begins a new life working in forestry. At the moment his village was being attacked, Umber’s wife Mehar (Tisca Chopra) was giving birth to the couple’s third daughter. When, a few years later, a fourth child is born, Umber decides that this is his son and he proceeds over the next few years to treat ‘Kanwar’ as a warrior Sikh who will hunt and grow strong. He ignores the evidence that this is his fourth daughter, not his son. In the second half of the film an incident pushes Kanwar (now played by Tillotama Shome) into a marriage prescribed by local custom. Something has to give as Kanwar moves to live with Neeli (Rasika Dugal).
This second half of the film, as the title suggests, moves into the realm of a form of ‘magic realism’. The whole film is constructed so carefully, with close attention to details of the mise en scène, that the shift does not seem abrupt but instead seems to develop naturally. The narrative resolution then returns us to the opening shots of the film so that the whole narrative seems like a dream (or a nightmare) – and one that will return. A recurring motif is the well in the courtyard of each of the two houses that the family occupies. In the Q&A, Anup Singh told us that his grandfather had told him that in the terror experienced in the moment of Partition, many women in the Punjab had hidden in wells. In one scene in the film the young Kanwar, having watched his/her father washing, is lowered down the well in the bucket with sunshine penetrating the lower reaches of the well. At other points in the film, the dominant component of the image seems to be a mirror, an open window or doorway, a shaft of sunlight or the reflecting surface of a pool of water. It’s not difficult to recognise the metaphor for the trauma of Partition, although it is presented, very beautifully, in these symbolic images – and is open to interpretation of what it actually means for the individuals concerned.
It was only after the screening that I fully appreciated that the crossing of the river and the journey to a new location forced on the family by Partition is an echo of Ritwik Ghatak’s thematic concerns in his Bengali films. But the ‘absence’ in Anup Singh’s film is the central symbol of the train which seems to appear in every other Partition film narrative that I can remember and is clearly present in Ghatak’s Cloud-Capped Star – which was screened in Manchester immediately before Qissa.
As far as I am aware, Qissa was not released in the UK, but has appeared in one of Channel 4’s seasons of Indian films. This Punjabi language film was released in cinemas in its four co-production countries. The curator of the Partition Weekend, Andy Willis, told us beforehand that when he had started to think about the films to show, Qissa had been the film he knew must be included. I’m glad he gave us this opportunity to see this fine film. Here’s a trailer for a Dutch release (with English subtitles):
Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!
The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .
I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.
It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)
The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.
I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.
I missed this film in cinemas and I was grateful for a TV screening that fitted into the ‘Christmas ghost story’ slot. The production was part-financed by BBC Films so it may be repeated in future Christmas schedules. The title refers to something repressed by the central character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a war widow and an educated and independent young woman (with plenty of money) in London in 1921. After the successful publication of her book about ‘ghost-hunting’ she is employed as a freelance investigator and the film opens with a set piece exposé of a fraudulent medium. But then Florence receives a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding prep school in Cumbria where a young boy has died in mysterious circumstances in what is believed to be a haunted building. Reluctantly, she agrees to travel north. What then transpires is an interesting drama involving mystery, romance and something which the rationalist Ms Cathcart is forced to come to terms with.
On the whole I enjoyed this first feature by director Nick Murphy who also co-wrote the film with the more experienced Stephen Volk. The weakest section for me was the opening up until the arrival at the school. The séance scene worked well but once outside the house I suddenly felt plunged into ‘BBC costume drama London’. Realist aesthetics in British film are so problematic. Recreations of 1920s/30s London always tend to use the same few ‘preserved’ streets which are so carefully ‘dressed’ and so clean that they look unreal. This was aggravated by the overall colour palette of the film with its almost bleached and subdued range. The squares (around Regent’s Park, I think) of white-painted houses positively gleamed in the sunlight – much as they have in countless TV series and several other films. This was then followed by the most picturesque train journey, actually through Scotland (Creative Scotland was another funder) – looking like an outtake from Harry Potter. Fortunately, once the narrative deposited the audience at the school (an amalgam of Scottish stately homes) the genre tropes kicked into gear and Eduard Grau’s cinematography and David Pemberton’s score became much more acceptable. All of this might be put in perspective by comparing the film with Hammer’s The Woman in Black (2012), which faced with a similar narrative set just a few years earlier, goes for broke with Gothic expressionism.
The Awakening is perhaps trying to distance itself from the heavily Gothic trappings and, unconsciously or not, links itself to the post World War I dramas about loss, trauma, grieving etc. (I was reminded Regeneration, the 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.) Nevertheless, The Awakening mixes elements easily identifiable from three classic films: The Innocents (UK 1961), The Others (Spain/US 2001) and El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). Thus we have an emotionally stressed young woman, a child/children and mysterious servants in a remote house. Murphy and Volk juggle these elements quite well and deliver an enigmatic but satisfying ending. Rebecca Hall has to carry the narrative drive and she does so magnificently. Again I was a little unsure at first about her character who seemed just too ‘modern’ in speech and behaviour, but as the narrative moved more towards melodrama she grew into the part very well. Dominic West is very good as well (though disconcertingly he looks exactly as he does in the 2011-2 TV series The Hour, set in the 1950s – whereas Hall I saw in Parade’s End (2012) set in roughly the same period). The other leading players include Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron, Shawn Dooley as another (damaged) teacher and Isaac William Hempstead as one of the boys (he’s since appeared in Game of Thrones).
The Awakening isn’t a masterpiece like each of the three titles listed above, but it is an interesting attempt to re-work the same elements and to draw on a different notion of national trauma – something perhaps worth researching further and comparing to the importance of the ‘disappeared’ in Francoist Spain which informs El orfanato. The Lumière Database entry on the film reveals that although business was weak in the UK, it was much better in several other European markets – Spain matching the UK and Italy recording double the number of admissions. Russia and Poland also chipped in. Unfortunately, DVD figures are harder to find but there was a release in the US and in Japan (see the poster which emphasises the Gothic heroine).
I hope that the film doesn’t disappear and that it generates interest from scholars.