Fantômes, 2001

On the surface, Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Fantômes unfolds with a sense of haunted, supernatural disequilibrium that similarly infuses Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s atmospheric, tonal cinema. In the film’s opening sequence, a young acting student, Mouche (Dina Ferreira) stares out the window of an empty room and wistfully implores her absent lover, Bruno (Olivier Boreel) to return. Alone with her grief, she retreats into the silence of her intimate memories, briefly interrupted by what appears to be an anonymously placed, prank telephone call (in a premise that coincidentally evokes Kurosawa’s Pulse, made in the same year), before being brought back to the mundane reality of rehearsing text in Russian for an upcoming drama class during a subsequent telephone conversation with her professor, Andreï (Jean-Claude Montheil). However, Mouche’s desolation does not lie in the vestiges of a failed love affair, but rather, in the tragic loss of a new lover from a motorcycle accident. The image of the sad-eyed Mouche invoking the name of her dead lover is reflected in the dorsal shot of another distracted acting student, Antoine (Guillaume Verdier) as he stares out the window of a country house while rehearsing his lines, avoiding the gaze of his first love (Emilie Lelouch) before finally resolving to break up with her. Emboldened by his newfound emotional liberation, Antoine turns away from the quiet familiarity of his pastoral life and hitchhikes his way to Paris to visit his cousin Mathieu (Serge Bozon) where, on the eve of his arrival, he witnesses the curious disappearance of his traveling companion (Guillaume Junot) on the side of a hill overlooking the city – an unemployed motorist attempting to reconcile with his estranged wife with empty promises of finding a new job – after he pulls his car over to the side of the road in order to get better reception on his cell phone, and simply vanishes into the darkness. Arriving disoriented at Mathieu’s apartment on the following day, a flophouse shared by a curious assortment of interchangeable, self-involved roommates who lead their separate lives oblivious of each others’ presence, Antoine’s strange encounter is validated by Mathieu who recounts the apparently rampant urban legend of unexplained disappearances that have recently plagued the city. Soon, as Antoine strives to forge a new life in Paris as a drama student and a part-time accountant, he, too, finds himself surrounded by the strange presence of aimless, disconnected lost souls who hover over the empty spaces of their resigned lives pining over lost – and perhaps imaginary – loves. At the core of Civeyrac’s allusive and resonant, if opaque, subverted ghost story is the integral anxiety of illusive love, the regret of missed opportunity, and the fear of being ordinary and anonymous. Civeyrac expounds on the visual continuum developed in his earlier film, Les Solitaires where past and present, the living the dead coexist within a character’s interpenetrating perceptual reality (a seamless transition through obscuring shadows and underlit, interstitial spaces that is also incorporated in the aesthetic movement of All the Fine Promises and À travers la forêt) to explore what would become his recurring orphic themes of corporeal love, longing, existential passage, and redemption. Framed against Antoine’s diverted journey towards self-discovery near the sea – an image that is underscored by his encounter with an alluring, siren-like woman in the water – Fantômes presents a reconstituted contemporary mythology of human desire and frailty, where limbo is the banal reality of unreconciled memories, and immortal love exists only in the illusion of an irretrievable, transitory bliss.

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