Confusion about film steeped in Quebecois history

Répertoire des villes disparues

© screengrab

The Canadian film Répertoire des villes disparues (Ghost Town Anthology) by Denis Côté premiered in competition at Berlin’s film festival 2019, the Berlinale. As I waited in line to pick up my coat following the screening, I overheard a young attendant ask a German journalist what he thought of the film. The journalist confessed he was at a loss for what to say: he hadn’t understood this story of reactions in a small Quebecois village to the death of a 21 year-old local man in a car accident. I am Canadian and had loved director Denis Côté’s film but in that moment I realized that it might not have been easy to decode unless you knew something of Quebec’s recent history.

The story opens at a community gathering in memory of the young man. The family didn’t want a church funeral so the mayor presides over the event. Rumour has it that the young man committed suicide because he lost his job when the local mine closed but no one will say so openly nor will they acknowledge that the village itself may well disappear if people keep leaving to search for work. Individual ghost-like figures, including unknown children cavorting in grey masks, have begun appearing but no one will admit to seeing them. This is a village shrouded in silence and denial.

Côté is not the first filmmaker to address the themes of loss and repressed mourning. The challenge lies in how he tells the story. Without some context, it is difficult to engage with this film. And so, there at the coat check counter, I launched into an explanation of Quebec’s recent history of social and religious upheaval. These, I told the journalist and attendant, were key to decoding the film.

Other attendants gathered to listen as I explained that in the early 1960’s Quebec rejected the Catholic Church during what came to be known as the “Quiet Revolution” – a sudden social upheaval which saw people topple a long-seated right wing and repressive provincial government, and affirm their separate identity from the rest of Canada. The result 60 years later is a secularized society where people no longer have rituals for collective mourning.

Côté focuses his story on the days following the young man’s death when sightings of ghostly presences in the fictional village of Saint Irénée-des-Neiges become more persistent and rumours of the presumed suicide spread. Adele, a local woman regarded as odd, is now seeing entire rows of strangers standing silently at the edge of the forest. The portrayal of these phantoms draws on Quebec folklore – from the type of masks worn by the child ghosts to the stories of ghostlike presences in legends, poems, and songs. People from Quebec will recognize their origins but they are opaque to viewers from other cultures.

At first the villagers write off the ghostly figures as hallucinations. But when a trauma counsellor – a Muslim woman – is called in from the city to address a community meeting, she confirms that the phantoms are a real phenomenon and that they are being seen in other economically depressed regions. This frees the villagers to open up and confess to seeing the apparitions, which the counsellor explains are visions and memories of people who once lived among them – those who have disappeared.

This element of the story is difficult to understand without knowing that many Quebeckers are haunted by the fear that they will lose their unique culture and their language and are locked into a struggle to keep their villages and their cultural identity “pure” and alive. Yet at the same time, as a result of the Quiet Revolution they have lost their connection to the religious and cultural traditions, which once underpinned their culture. And now, due to economic decline, villagers are even losing touch with the people with whom they once lived.

In an attempt to maintain what little remains of their former village, the people of Saint-Irénée-des-Neiges have turned in on themselves and do not welcome strangers. How ironic, and yet how necessary, it is that a Muslim outsider opens their eyes to see that their past is still present. It takes an outsider to unblock the repressed emotions of the villagers and allow them to reconnect with their ancestors and loved ones. At this point, the villagers are psychologically and spiritually released and free to gather together below Adele who has floated up to hover over the village, evoking images of the Virgin Mary – an echo of the villagers’ repressed Catholic faith. Whether or not they understand what is happening to them, they are at least now able to admit to what haunts them. And so ends the film.

Répertoire des villes disparues will play well in Quebec where people have the key to the visual and aural clues Côté uses to go beneath the surface of this story. It may play less well outside of that context.  Some Canadian critics tagged the film to win the Berlinale’s Golden Bear award for best film. I, however, was not surprised when it failed to garner even one award. The film did not speak for itself outside the context where it was shot.

Even so, I am grateful to have seen it. Not everyone is lucky enough to watch a film with people who are curious enough to ask questions about it afterwards and eager to understand another people’s story. That is the richness of a film festival like Berlin. Picking up a coat can become a cross-cultural exchange.64 Sca0b3e64 Sca0b3e