Death and Beyond: ‘A Ghost Story’ and ‘Enter the Void’

Exploring the afterlife in the work of David Lowery and Gaspar Noé.

A Ghost Story
A24

In most movies death is final. And the death of a protagonist is often the end of the story. But two films take a different approach, killing their main characters early on and following their ghosts in a search for some form of closure. David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story and Gaspar Noé‘s Enter the Void might seem, at least on paper, quite similar in this regard, although the vastly different styles of these two filmmakers result in two cinematic experiences that are worlds apart.

In A Ghost Story, we open with an intimate portrait of a couple, named C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). They live together in their quiet house, speaking in soft voices, appearing far removed from the rest of the world. When a ghostly presence wakes them in the middle of the night, later revealed to be C himself, we’re treated not to a scene of terror, but a quietly romantic, almost intrusively intimate scene between the two that perfectly sets up the grief that hangs over the rest of film.

C’s death then happens abruptly and off-camera, as a slow pan takes us from the exterior of their serene home to the grizzly aftermath of a car crash. There’s no greater purpose to it and the fact that we don’t even see the crash reminds us how close we may be to our own demise. And it’s exactly the random nature of his death that makes it so difficult for M to move on and gain any sort of closure. As if, much like C’s ghost, some unfinished business keeps her tethered to this particular time and place.

But after a long period of time (and an even longer pie-eating scene) she leaves the house behind, realizing that clinging onto the past can do her no good. C’s music and the time they spent together will always be there, but she must move on. Leaving a message in the wall before departing, M drives away forever, leaving C to haunt these walls until he’s ready to read that message and pass on himself.

Enter the Void, on the other hand, starts like a Gaspar Noé film– with a barrage of noise and a seizure-inducing credits sequence. Followed by a rather blunt conversation between Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) about death– “They say you fly when you die,” and a discussion of what Tokyo looks like from above. Noé also establishes “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” here, the inspiration for the portrayal of the afterlife. To simplify, the book states that after death the spirit leaves the body, going on a journey through past and present, floating around but unable to communicate with the living. And when the time comes for reincarnation, the spirit sees a series of lights, giving glimpses of potential lives to choose from.

This is all explained in detail in one of the film’s clunkier scenes, in which Oscar asks his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) to help him understand the book (dialogue has never been Noé’s strongest suit). This summary goes on to foreshadow the journey that Oscar goes on following his gruesome death, as childhood trauma and the spiritual connection it forges are presented as a whirlwind DMT trip.

Oscar’s death is less of a random occurrence, taking place after a simple exchange of drugs turns out to be a police sting. Oscar makes a dash for the toilet after being set up by Victor (Olly Alexander), but his efforts to dispose of his stash result in him being shot dead. His spirit then leaves his body, floating above and looking down upon his lifeless body. He re-lives the fatal crash that killed his and Linda’s parents, before going back to the months, weeks and days leading up to his death, while a distraught Linda struggles to move on with her life.

This unbreakable bond (which occasionally veers into uncomfortable territory) between the two siblings drives Oscar for the remainder of the film. Even though, much like A Ghost Story‘s C, he remains unable to reach over and communicate with her. These two spirits are tethered to the mortal world for the duration of their stories by a person, a constant in their lives, until they’re set free.

For C, that means reading the note left in the walls by M, a message unknown to the viewer that finally allows him to move on. Resulting in the film’s haunting final image– his ghostly sheet dropping to the floor before his spirit floats away, gaining a profound sense of closure. While Oscar’s final moments as a disembodied spirit see him seeking out the bright lights, watching as Alex and Linda have sex and reincarnating as the product of their conception.

Noé’s take on the afterlife is largely derived from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (or at least the cliff notes version), with its ideas on the afterlife used as a basis for this head-spinning trip. On the other hand, Lowery takes influence from films like The Tree of Life and Poltergeist for A Ghost Story‘s exploration of grief and loss. The director said of the latter’s influence:

“Two-thirds of the way through A Ghost Story, there’s an entire sequence that is basically a remake of Poltergeist from the ghost’s point of view.”

While the scene in question, where C terrifies an innocent family, isn’t without horror, there’s a real underlying sadness to it. C isn’t trying to harm this family, he just cannot accept anybody else living in the space he shared with M. But as we see, this desperate clinging onto the past has consequences. C’s interactions with the other ghost reveal a spirit that spent so long waiting for somebody, holding on, that they don’t even remember who they’re waiting for. “I don’t think they’re coming,” says the other ghost later in the film, before vanishing. Fading out of existence with no sense of closure, forgotten to the world.

Lowery captures all this with such a quiet, gentle approach– he uses long takes and slow pans to put us in the mindset of C, watching and patiently waiting. While the camera movements are ramped up in more heightened scenes, the film is more often deliberately slow. And with a haunting score that lurks in the back of scenes like a ghostly presence and the claustrophobic aspect ratio, a truly chilling atmosphere is created.

Enter the Void, despite being considerably longer, is a far more frantic film, full of trippy visions and flashes of neon. Noé too favors long takes to keep us with Oscar’s spirit, although his camera takes us above the city streets, in and out of rooms, and even inside Linda’s body at the climactic moment of conception. All the while, droning techno music in seedy clubs reminds us of those nights out that should have ended hours ago.

Both filmmakers capture the curious nature of these ghostly spirits, as they’re forced to merely observe all they come into contact with. Whether it’s through swooping camera movements or static shots that linger on the seemingly unending grief, we’re able to truly experience life after death and the longing to comfort those who mourn us.

A Ghost Story and Enter the Void are radically different expressions of this idea– one is a quiet, meditative work while the other is a pounding assault on the senses, but both are singular expressions of the people who created them. And both films allow us to experience that which we spend our whole lives wondering about– what happens after we’re gone.

Sometimes knows what he's talking about.