Hot Docs

This House Review: Hope, Grief, and a Ghost Story

Hot Docs 2022

/
7 mins read

This House
(Canada, 75 min)
Dir. Miryam Charles

 

In an entertainment landscape saturated with exploitative true crime content, Miryam Charles’s experimental hybrid film, This House, acts as an invigorating corrective. Revolving around the suspicious death of the filmmaker’s teenage cousin in 2008, Charles sidesteps the conventional approach of any number of Netflix docuseries in refusing to treat this tragedy as a morbidly tantalizing mystery to be solved. Rather, it becomes a jumping off point for an illusory study of its greater emotional echoes through time and space.

This House begins on a gloomy day in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the camera peering out the passenger side window of a car driving through an anonymous suburban neighbourhood. “It looks like the house…,” the disembodied voice-over of Charles repeatedly intones as the vehicle gradually slows down, attempting to remember exactly which of the identical looking homes is the one where her cousin, given the name Tessa in the film, was found hanged in her bedroom. We’re then introduced to Tessa as an imagined twentysomething woman (played by Schelby Jean-Baptiste), or as she states to an unseen interviewer, “Me in an adult body that never existed.

Tessa re-enters the life of her grieving mother, Valeska (Florence Blain Mbaye), who is at first inconsolable upon hearing from the doctor at the morgue (The Twentieth Century director Matthew Rankin) that her daughter suffered greatly and that the autopsy also revealed signs of bodily bruising and sexual assault. These clear intimations of foul play are not explicitly explored, however, and Charles’s version takes this story in a different direction. Back at their home, mother and daughter continue their loving relationship on a new plane of existence, neither real nor fantastic, re-enacting moments from the past and creating a future of their own making.

These scenes largely play out on a black stage, within purposely artificial sets of the house and other important locales. Akin to the cinematic zones of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville or David Lynch’s early short The Grandmother, this otherworldly environment evocatively suggests a purgatorial realm that Tessa and Valeska have both been thrust into by way of death and grief, respectively. And while this allows them a space to tend to their metaphysical role-playing, a pervasive aura of despair (aided by a soundtrack thick with Lynchian ominous whooshing) pierces the presumed comfort and security of their home.

Yet, while Tessa and Valeska may be trapped in this domain, This House isn’t similarly constricted to one place. Charles takes her camera from Bridgeport and her hometown of Montreal all the way to the lush natural landscape of Haiti, where her family comes from, in order to silently observe the regions that were of such psychological prominence to the film’s central figures. “We’ll establish a possibility of a fluid journey through time and space,” is a mission statement that Tessa continually proposes, and the way Charles smoothly transitions between the film’s strange liminal spaces and its real locations, all captured with dreamy 16mm photography, excitingly achieves that lofty aesthetic goal.

Of course, as indicated by its title, This House ultimately probes the idea of the house as a living, breathing extenuation of our states of being. Whether in the crumbling uninhabited structures that Charles shoots in Haiti or the stage residence that Tessa and Valeska are fated to inhabit, the film understands that houses are imbued with all of the energies of the events that transpire within them. At one point, when Tessa chides her mother for keeping so many trinkets around the house, Charles’s narration cuts in to explain that Haitians “decorate their houses like museums,” in order to reflect past lives, future lives, and all their dreams—a perfect summation of the film as a whole. She also contemplates the power of the house as a much-needed refuge for immigrant communities, most astutely in a sequence where Tessa and Valeska join their family in Montreal to anxiously watch the results of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum on television.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of This House is how effectively it works as a pure ghost story. Throughout, Charles adopts the spectral perspective of Tessa in a way that brings to mind recent avant-garde horror exercises like Oz Perkins’s I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House and H.P. Mendoza’s I Am a Ghost, where the interiority of the deceased becomes shiver-inducingly external. When Tessa continually restates her date and place of birth (“I was born in Stamford in 1994. Stamford in the state of Connecticut.”), it takes on the haunting weight of an evaporating consciousness desperately trying to hold on to its former life.

In doing so, and unlike many craven documentary attempts at exploring various tales of true crime, This House gives its victim a voice in death. “My story is both tragic and full of hope,” Tessa states, as she and Valeska steadily learn the incredible power in wholly embracing unimaginable grief to move towards a path of greater spiritual awareness. And Charles’s immensely assured filmmaking style is there to guide them each step of the way.

This House premieres at Hot Docs on May 1.

Mark Hanson is a film writer and curator from Toronto, with words appearing in Slant Magazine, In The Seats, and FilmTrap. He is also the Product Manager at Bay Street Video, one of North America's last remaining video stores. A graduate of York University's Film Production program, he holds a particular interest in unearthing wild and weird obscurities to introduce to new audiences.

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