Eschatology is at the heart of French director Stéphane Batut’s Burning Ghost, but to this viewer’s mind, so is capitalism, a concept as eternal as the soul. That’s because even his premature death can’t keep young Juste (Thimotée Robart) out of the labor force.
Juste opens the movie in an earthbound purgatory. Newly freed from his dying body but not yet adjusted to the change, he stumbles through the woods and falls on some train tracks, as a group of laughing teenagers blissfully steps around him: Can they actually see him, or are they just self-absorbed Gen-Zers?
Juste soon meets another liminal traveler, a tailor (Djolof Mbengue) who occupies a similar purgatorial existence. He sends Juste to their supervisor, a white-coated doctor named Kramarz (Saadia Bentaieb), for processing. “I was like everybody else,” Juste tells her, “before what happened. … I just want to get back to normal.” Tough break: Within a short time, Juste is employed as one of Kramarz’s couriers, dispatched to bedsides and crime scenes to usher the newly departed away from the corporeal and toward the ethereal.
The difference between a ghost and a spirit, as any medium will tell you, is that spirits have fully transitioned to the other side, while ghosts are the hangers-on of the afterlife, sticking around like the last guest to leave a party for reasons of “unfinished business” or because they simply lack the wherewithal to find the exit ramp to the Good Place (or, I suppose, the other place).
Juste assists them by prompting them to conjure a memory from the past that will stick with them — shades of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life — which then develops around them in Technicolor detail, leading these once-lost souls into the capable hands of Kramarz and, one hopes, eternal peace. I’m particularly fond of the scene in which a grandmother, felled by a cat who plummeted several apartment stories onto her head (quite a Six Feet Under way to die!) stares dumbfounded at her bandaged husk on a hospital bed and wonders aloud, “Is that thing me?”
There is a good deal of imagination in constructing the world in which Juste operates, a kind of bardo of banality. Part in the shadows and part fully visible, he still has to buy his own clothes, and endure laundry days and dull bus rides and subway buskers. People have claimed to see spirits walking among us, as three-dimensional full-bodied apparitions; Burning Ghost offers an architecture for their slippery coexistence.
It’s more than a little disappointing, then, that the chief antecedent for Batut’s film is not Kore-eda’s sublime fantasy but torrid Hollywood romances like Ghost. The film squanders much of its intrigue when Juste makes the mistake of falling in love with a living human, a woman named Agathe (Judith Chemla), with whom he had shared a fateful night a decade earlier. Spirits exchanging fluids with mortals is, apparently, a huge regulatory no-no in Juste’s workplace, and his punishment threatens to upend their serendipitous connection.
Would that the movie smolders as much as its title suggests. I’m not so cynical a critic as to scoff at a paranormal romance at face value, but Burning Ghost is awfully boilerplate in its embrace of common tropes. It’s the directorial debut for Batut, a longtime casting director who has augmented features from auteurs like Claire Denis and Arnaud Desplechin, but he seems to have absorbed little of their poetry. Unabashedly sentimental, Burning Ghost grows increasingly anchored to a sumptuous Old Hollywood score, deployed unironically and for maximum treacle.
It is largely the French liberality toward onscreen nudity that separates this movie’s sex scenes from their PG-13-angling American peers, though it is easy to imagine a studio remake of Burning Ghost starring Blake Lively and Ansel Elgort as lovers connected by everything but the flesh. In this age of COVID, it may just be the safest sex there is.
BURNING GHOST. Director: Stéphane Batut; Cast: Thimotée Robart, Judith Chemla, Saadia Bentaieb, Djolof Mbengue, Marie-Jose Kilolo Maputu; in French with English subtitles; Distributor: Kino Lorber; Now streaming at Coral Gables Art Cinema’s Virtual Screening Room