"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

The Mundane Ghost Story

The Eclipse
Written and directed by Conor McPherson

Without straining too arduously, try to name a ghost film you saw recently that you thought was satisfying.  There is a corollary: name any one successful film in the canon of the genre that was hinged not on a twist of plot or revelation in the later acts, but on the dramatic arc of the protagonist regardless of (even if affected by) supernatural presence. 

To categorize the pulse of the quality of modern supernatural thrillers as generally lethargic would be unkind to the early efforts of, say, an M. Night Shyamalan, but this would not make it untrue.  Even his respectable efforts (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), which gave him messianic "Next Spielberg" sorts of praise, hinged entirely on plot and those now-infamous last-minute twists, not on the human struggles of their heroes.  This puts The Eclipse almost in its own category of the cinema: the humanly meaningful ghost story.

Not to be confused with the upcoming installment in the Twilight of a similar name, The Eclipse is a new film by accomplished Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson. A strong majority of McPherson's work—Shining City, The Weir, and last year's The Seafarer—explores characters haunted by a supernatural presence.  He confessed rather candidly during a Q&A after a screening at last week's Tribeca Film Festival that he has an obsession with ghosts. One could carefully speculate that his plays and films go beyond mere exploration of the subject and act almost as personal exorcisms of a sort.

As is so often the case with McPherson's work, almost everything important lies beneath the surface of the dialogue.

As is so often the case with McPherson's work, almost everything important lies beneath the surface of the dialogue.

The Eclipse is set in Cobh, an eerie Irish seaside town more visually ripe for cinematic thrills than the classic back-lot village set of Frankenstein.  Michael (the tirelessly subtle Ciarán Hinds), a recent widower, juggles a job at an annual literary festival with his duties as single father to two children.  For the festival, he is asked to chauffeur and tend to a writer of supernatural-fiction named Lena (Iben Hjejle), who seems to have had some darker experiences of her own.  Also at the festival is the widely known but shallow—and often tempestuous—author Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), who quickly begins trying to rekindle Lena's affections from a previous affair.

Early in the film Michael is drawn out of his bedroom at night by a noise coming from downstairs.  He thinks he sees a shadowy figure roaming in the hallway below, but it fades.  This is just the first such appearance, and one would be remiss in assuming the figure doesn't invade Michael's space (physical and otherwise) later on in the film more terrifyingly.  I hesitate to describe much and even to identify the character that does the haunting, because the moment in the film when the secret is revealed is so awfully frightening, timed with such perfect pitch, and depicted in such a brilliantly-selected shot, that it would be a shame to spoil it.

Michael and Lena slowly and delicately develop a connection as he shows her around town and keeps her company in the remote lodgings she's been placed in for the festival.  As is so often the case with McPherson's work, almost everything important lies beneath the surface of the dialogue.  His characters do not talk about the plot.  They are complex, often introverted, almost always soft-spoken people, and most of what we glean about Michael's (and Lena's, and even Nicholas') condition in the story is based on what is not said—on actions the characters do not take.  Consider, for example, a beautiful moment in a cemetery between Michael and Lena.  They have spent much of the day getting to know each other, and Michael has just shown her his parents' headstone.  Lena, ever so gently, asks if his wife has been buried in this cemetery as well, and Michael tells her no, she is buried elsewhere.  They walk on, and McPherson's camera pulls back away from them, settling near the ground in a different part of the cemetery, in front of a headstone bearing his dead wife's name.

Similarly, the ghostly elements of the film are just as important in what they do not explain, as in what they do.  It is important to note that the supernatural appearances in The Eclipse are rationalized by the film's end no more than is the cycle of emotional grief, turmoil, and catharsis.  The ghosts serve not only as physical manifestations of the complication of horror-inducing emotions, but as symbols of the themes of the narrative.  In a genre typically muddied with screeching sound effects, wasteful use of gore, and a fetish for shock instead of suspense, this is rare.  Yes, the images we see are horrifying, and somewhat gory.  But the images themselves are not the intention of the film; they are simply a visual means of exploring Michael's journey of grief.  McPherson himself put it rather well when he said that there is nothing necessarily supernatural about the film.  This needn't be seen as anything more than a character enduring a painfully transformative experience, haunted by both phantoms from both the unknown beyond and the unsettled within.

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