The Feast as a Representation of Grieving
by Davin Lee
Though death and not knowing what may come after is a common source of dread, the loss of the mortal, often trivial, comforts of life are what we fear the most. “That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anesthetic from which none come round” (Larkin). What will it be like to be devoid of all we have known? It is a common philosophical idea that one cannot achieve eudaimonia, or a happy life, without living a just life in accordance with one’s values, but more importantly, sharing in life with others and the world around us. Whether it be as simple as sharing a meal with a loved one, or even sharing in a fiery argument, it is all a part of the experience we fear losing, and grieve when lost in those we love. Feasting is a significant part of that joy. Historically, the feast has celebrated both life and death in numerous cultures and religions. For instance, in Korean Buddhism, the ceremonial “Jesa” serves as a communal offering to those we have lost. It is one of the ways people have chosen to become interlinked with each other, and share in something greater than the individual. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) takes the tropes of feasting and creates its antithesis in a representation of visceral newfound loss.
A Ghost Story attempts to portray the honest perspectives of both a widow grieving her late husband, and his ghost observing and reflecting from limbo as he tries to find solace and closure on his relationship with the world and his wife. The woman and her husband, only known to us as “M” and “C,” share an imperfect love. We learn that M grew up moving frequently, which instilled in her a sense of abandonment. She tells C that she used to hide notes in each house so that a piece of her was always there waiting if she ever desired to go back. Simple rhymes and poems that would remind her of the homes she had stayed in, as well as what pieces of her had grown there. C, a musician, is more resistant to change, whereas change is all M has ever known. He is firmly planted in the house and life he shares with his wife, and the disconnect in shared experiences begins to build tension as M wishes to move. C becomes passive, and M becomes frustrated by having to make the decisions they share responsibility for on her own. Though frustrated, and perhaps resentful, C gives in as his love for M is not worth straining for a mere change in scenery. Just a few days later, C dies unexpectedly from a car crash.
C’s ghost begins to follow M as the numbness of shock subsides and C begins to feel a raw grief. In a harrowing scene about 24 minutes into the film, M arrives home from the hospital where C’s body was to find a pie left by their landlord. As she settles into her home without her husband, she decides to eat the pie in one sitting. The scene occurs entirely in the kitchen with only one cut, as she sits on the floor with the pie in hand. A full static shot is maintained throughout to evoke a “fly on the wall” effect, as the viewer begins to feel they are watching a moment too personal to be viewed. M sits on the floor and eats the pie one forkful at a time, with a deafening silence save for the sounds of the fork clanking against the pan and her chewing as she struggles to get the chunks of pie down. C’s ghost watches along slightly out of frame, completely still and with no way to communicate. Despite a lack of dialogue or expression, we intuitively understand the futility and pain he feels as he watches his widowed wife struggle to process her sadness. The scene ends as M rushes to the bathroom to throw up, still within frame of the same shot with C looking on.
When we discuss feasting in modern culture, it is often celebratory in nature. As mentioned before, cultural feasts revolving around death often serve as communal remembrances of the departed. Lowery takes the idea of a feast as the physical manifestation of the anger, guilt, and loss M feels for C. It is a sort of anti-feast where there is food in excess, but consumed only by one; there are others in attendance, namely C, but M is nonetheless isolated. The scene does not feel as if M is honoring, or even mourning C, but rather consuming in bewilderment to fill the void that is growing in her soul; coping personified. The scene culminates in her throwing up, as suppression is only a temporary relief. The “feast” as it were, is a distraction from an aching pain that will eventually overflow and face M head on. The calm and composed veneer M has worn on her face up until this scene is beginning to crack.
Feasting is an ambiguous concept, but that is exactly why juxtaposing archetypal concepts over more barren and nihilistic perspectives works. Going back to Larkin, M may still possess the ability to partake in consumption but she has lost its inherent meaning. There is a poignance to be found in the fact that she is not alone in the room, but she is completely and utterly alone in her sorrow. Both M and C lack the closure they need to move on, as C’s abrupt death left their relationship frozen in a sort of perpetual deadlock. It is only when M accepts her memories of her late husband as a lasting piece of her, and learns to begin new chapters in her life, can she finally move on, leaving one last note in her old home. Yet, C still remains stuck, unable to interact with the world around him, and unable to fully die. The feast is symbolic of our connections to people. The more empty chairs there are at the table, the closer you are to metaphorical death. Lowery doesn’t believe in a solitary feast. Humanity and warmth are only portrayed in scenes of sharing, whether it be food or time spent together, and suffering is only shown in scenes of isolation. To Lowery, the feast is an extension of what connections you have formed or lost.
In a second scene 53 minutes into the film, we are introduced to a mother and her two children that have moved into M and C’s old home. We now see the archetypal feast. Perhaps not grand or opulent, but a good meal shared between family in a seemingly joyous occasion. C is deeply angered by this and begins to haunt the family, throwing cups full of milk and plates from the cupboard around the kitchen as the family hides in a state of confusion. While M may have been able to eventually process her grief, C has yet to accept his life as the finite thing it was. He watches this family, which could have easily been his in a few years, enjoy the meal and the laughter he should have shared with a family of his own. C is forced to spend an eternity through all of time watching the plot of land that was his home come and go. Once he accepts the beauty and pain all have experienced, he can see the events of his life play through one more time. In the end, he is returned back to his home, where he finds the note M left, and the sheets that made his ghostly frame collapse to the ground.
Lowery acknowledges the feast as representative of the loving, intimate, and celebratory moments in life. But he also recognizes that without the passion of sharing with one another, all a feast is is a reminder of just how empty you are. All the food and wine in the world in an empty hall would only bring resentment, sorrow, and grief. It is the exploration of how food represents human connection, and the deep value we place in simple collective acts, that makes this film so beautiful and achingly painful to watch at the same time.
A Ghost Story. Dir. David Lowery. Perf. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara. A24, 2017. Streaming.
Hursthouse, Rosalind, and Glen Pettigrove. “Virtue Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 11 Oct. 2022, plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/.