It is a trying task to fit David Lowery’s A Ghost Story into a cinematic category. It is neither horror, drama, comedy or thriller. Instead it occupies a meditative, oneiric tone and mode of storytelling. It’s certainly dramatic, and there are a few moment of shock, surprise and fear, but the spine of the film is difficult to define in generic terms. Is there a genre to combine “philosophical”, “atemporal” and “melancholic”? This would perhaps be the more fitting label for A Ghost Story.
The film opens with C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) cuddling on a couch, giggling as M talks about being so scared that she finds it funny. The film, shot in the box-like 4:3 aspect ratio, uses a muted colour palette and curves the corners of the frame — aesthetic choices that immediately create a sense of nostalgia — so even when witnessing the present day, we still feel as though we are gazing into the past.
In the beginning, this couple are alive together, displaying love despite disagreements. We witness M’s dissatisfaction with their abode as she solitarily scrolls apartment listings. C on the other hand appears more content as he works in the quiet house, the main disruption to its hushed atmosphere being the creaky and untuned piano which is haunted by seemingly spontaneous outbreaks and noise. However, despite their dissimilar outlooks, love is communicated to us as the camera hovers above them in bed, a shot lingering in close, intimate proximity as they pepper one another with sleepy kisses and M nestles her small body into C’s protective arms.
It is early on in the film when C dies in a car accident, only to then remain active, albeit on the other side of life, and become the ghost who leads the story the title indicates. As this transformation occurs shortly after the start, we grow closer to the ghost of the man than we ever do to the living, breathing, smiling, talking and visible man we initially meet. As an apparition, his eyes are all-seeing. In his after-life, C is shrouded in a heavy white sheet with two dark eyeholes through which he peers at the space where he once lived. The outfit appears gimmicky at first, riffing on what is now a jokey Halloween costume. But C’s ghost soon transforms this all-too-familiar icon into a melancholic and eerie figure, retaining emotion as he stalks and spans time whilst confined to a small space. This ghost, who is himself stalked by the camera, never allows us to stray far from the opening shot: the house that C and M (Rooney Mara) live in.
For the first half of the film, succeeding the arrival of the ghost, we watch C watching M. She gets dressed, she eats a pie, she listens to a song, she packs her bags. A longing is inferred, both ghost and widow grieving in the same space, the same time, but different planes of life and death. But the second half of the film breathes a different cinematic experience, one charged with philosophical questions and a narrative which becomes as abstract as the ghost’s costume. In this second part, time becomes unhinged (though we remain on the same plot of land). Many come to walk over this space, through a door or over a meadow, as time speeds up, slows down, reverts and loops. Now, instead of merely watching C and M’s grief, we experience the feeling of grief over a prolonged period. C’s ghost is not regulated by the regular rules of visiting and being in time. Instead he — and us as viewers — span centuries in the blink of an eye, or a turn of the head, the raise of a hand or the blowing of a bulb. Temporality reroutes swiftly and smoothly from linear to anachronic, from neon cities to verdant land. With editing such as match-cutting and time-lapsing, time appears to pretzel elegantly and somewhat undramatically. A Ghost Story does not time-travel as a sci-fi film might suggest, but elegantly transports us with our solemn guide, forever draped in cottoned anonymity. And it is this anonymity, this visual reduction (and thus abstraction) that further allows us to regard this ghost as more than the individual around whom the narrative revolves. We are all haunted by ghosts of others, ghosts of ourselves — ghosts of past, future and the present time. And this film, a ghost of moving image, stayed with me long after leaving the cinema.