A Ghost Story: How film can represent grief through stillness
A Ghost Story is a 2017 film directed by David Lowery that follows a man (Casey Affleck) who, while living in a new home with his significant other (Rooney Mara), tragically dies in a car accident. He awakens as a ghost, visualized as him covered in a bedsheet with the eyes cut out. The visual, coupled with the 4:3 vignetted aspect ratio creates a feeling of nostalgia, of memories buried deep within our subconscious. It calls to mind Charlie Brown, and the feeling of childlike innocence.
A Ghost Story explores themes of death, life, regret, time, in a way you rarely see in mainstream film. Barring a monologue about half-way through the film’s runtime, a majority of its story and themes are expressed visually, through stillness. As a result of the aspect ratio, the Ghost’s position in the frame either makes him the majority of what we see on-screen, or dwarfed by a collapsing house, rolling fields, and other imagery I do not want to spoil.
What has stuck with me since I first saw the film, however, is the infamous pie scene. The scene follows Mara as she returns home from some unspecified errand, finds a pie an acquaintance had dropped off for her. After opening it, Mara begins to eat the pie in its entirety on the floor, before running to the bathroom to throw it up. The full scene is approximately eight minutes, with four-and-a-half minutes being a single shot in which the Ghost overlooks Mara devouring the pie.
In reviews for the film, critics were divided on the value of the scene; some found it to be brilliant, others boring, and some even criticizing Mara’s performance. For me, this scene captures something I rarely see in film, and that’s real grief.
In modern filmmaking, emotions are generally heightened so as to play to as broad an audience as possible. The population needs to know that a tragedy has befallen a character, and so they scream at the sky. We need to know an event has broken a character’s heart, and so a single tear rolls down their cheek as soft music plays in the background. I get it, I know why it’s done, and many times it’s effective. But sometimes, you need something different.
A Ghost Story’s pie scene is long, yes, and it is monotonous, but that’s the point. Much like the Ghost, we are trapped in this moment with Mara, as her composure crumbles and grief and despair manifest in binge-eating. It’s not showy, it doesn’t last for mere seconds, and it is deeply uncomfortable. Grief can be many things, and oftentimes it is uncomfortable. We are forced to confront the reality of loss through something as banal as eating pie, the aspect ratio creating a claustrophobic feeling of voyeurism for both the viewer, and the Ghost; despite all his best attempts, he cannot interact with Mara. He simply has to stand there and watch as his loved one self-destructs in the quietest way imaginable.
When you lose a loved one, it’s as if the world stops. There is a stillness to death, not just for those who die but for those who experience the ripple effects of death. The grieving process is manifold; for some, it is sitting on the floor and listening to a song that reminds you of them. For some, it is anger and lashing out at nothing. For some, it is finding even a moment’s comfort in food.
A Ghost Story is a vessel providing a way to experience grief in a way that we often don’t experience in film. Sometimes, grief doesn’t play to a wide audience. It can be intimate, and insular, and something that seems banal, and awkward, and almost frustratingly funny. Sometimes, we need boring reality in our art.
A Ghost Story is one of the best films I have ever seen.