Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

“More stars than there are in heaven,” MGM boasted in its heyday. That motto could apply to Charlie Shackleton’s collage film, which places hundreds of screen presences in an eerie celluloid version of the beyond. They’re not just stars: The Afterlight is populated by actors ranging from legendary to obscure, “some that you recognise, others that you’ve never even heard of,” as Ray Davies once sang. What they have in common is that they are all dead: the end credits list them in order of appearance (from Gérard Blain to Betsy Blair) and with dates, among the most recent losses being Anne Wiazemsky (d. 2017). In this film, they live on, enshrined – or entrapped – in a meticulously constructed simulation of immortality.

Shackleton has assembled clips from different eras and countries, in a way that at once emphasises discontinuity and multiplicity and creates an effect of narrative unity. His montage evokes a world in which all these actors exist as lost souls, wandering landscapes and streets alone, then converging in a shape-shifting, multifarious drinking den called The Afterlight, before moving on. Each clip has a particular resonance in itself – each movement or spoken line seems significant rather than merely casual – and so we imagine all these players to be re-enacting the gestures and words they performed when alive, as if doomed to eternal repetition: not merely like ghosts, but like the mechanically reproduced and projected revenants of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel, the inspiration behind Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad.

Placed together, the images evoke a post-death existence, perfect, poetic and yet irreducibly desolate. The actors are first seen wandering disparate, disconnected landscapes: an Alpine expanse, a desert, eerily unpopulated streets. There are city scenes, always deserted but for one player: the world has become a vast abandoned backlot, each set discrete from the others, as if occupying separate planes of being.

Some of the actors look stalked, others move with intent, as if stalking. That looks like Simone Simon in Cat People, seen from behind, tensed for the approach of a beast, or a bus, that will never enter the shot. Dana Andrews doggedly walks through a ghostly city; Claude Laydu, Bresson’s Country Priest, trudges glumly down a country road, which we suspect may stretch on forever; at night, Jeanne Moreau clicks along rainy streets, as if sullenly aware that there is no simmering assignation awaiting her any more.

Eventually, all these people seem to converge at a watering hole. In a clever sleight of hand, the neon sign reading ‘The Afterlight’ (where the afterlife is the converse of cinema’s eternally promised place of forbidden after-dark pleasures) is the film’s single non-sampled image, specially photographed by DoP Robbie Ryan. Inside, this protean hotspot – assembled from fragments of Hollywood nightclub, Mediterranean taverna, London local, you name it – welcomes drinkers of all nations, eras and dispositions. It’s hopping and buzzy in some corners (“What atmosphere! It’s electric!” chirrups a 1950s girl), morose in others: here’s Bogart from In a Lonely Place, waxing philosophical (“There is no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality”), here’s Polish star Zbigniew Cybulski, still dreaming hip sedition behind cinema’s coolest shades. And here’s William Hartnell staffing the bar, in his TV days, a pre-eminent traveller through time and space, and breaker of the mortality barrier.

Eventually, everyone leaves to resume their wandering, then to take shelter from a thunderstorm. Later, people walk – some nervously, some deliberately – to buildings, and up staircases to the doors of apartments they don’t seem to recognise, on landings where Katharine Hepburn might be neighbour to Mexican comic Cantiflas. In his room, Laydu’s Priest holds his head in despair, as if there’s no hope even after death: it’s amazing how one shot, recontextualised, can infuse the overall picture with new metaphysical, theological connotations.

Along with essay documentaries on genre (Beyond Clueless, Fear Itself), Shackleton has also cultivated a conceptual streak, notably in his 10-hour Paint Drying (talk about doing what it says on the can), a protest against the BBFC’s certification fees. The Afterlight’s conceptual singularity, beyond its actual content, is that it is touring in a single 35mm print that will endure the damage of projection until it is unshowable: material transience built into an evocation of immaterial immortality.

There are clear affinities with other recent collage films: Bill Morrison’s Decasia, with its invocation of celluloid’s ghost life, and Christian Marclay’s The Clock, although that film was rigorously constructed around a single non-narrative element, markers of time. By contrast, The Afterlight’s loose narrative shape is closer to Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog, which stitched moments from assorted movies and TV shows into a faux-remake of Vertigo. The Afterlight’s own quasi-narrative is a sustained musing on the question: what do the dead do all day?  

Taking these clips out of context and merging them into a new whole, Shackleton reminds us that a single detached image from a film can be more meaningful, evocative, rich in promise than the whole film it derives from (hence the almost mystical power of the movie still). As in The Clock, these orphaned moments can become little islands of intensified meaning, uncanny in their unmooring from any original narrative context. Sometimes a single snatch of dialogue catches our attention, taking on a meaning it can never have had originally. “The time is so short,” someone says, “I don’t know how much time I have to spend.” But what can these words mean, coming from someone already dead?

The closing moments suddenly introduce a new formal trick – with shades of materialist cinema – that doesn’t quite convince, feeling inconsistent with the rest. The Afterlight is arguably overstretched: the sequence towards the end, where suddenly people start driving cars towards another nightspot, feels too dynamic, too purposeful to match with the haunted drift of what’s gone before. Certain earlier moments feel like ideal points for the film to end: a sudden eerie blackout, or a furious-paced montage of close-ups set to Jeremy Warmsley’s propulsive piano music. But perhaps there is no natural end point: a collage film like this is always liable to seem too long, or too short, disappointing in that it doesn’t go on forever. Just how long is long enough, when you’re invoking eternity?

► The Afterlight is currently touring cinemas across the UK and Ireland until July 31. For details visit https://theafterlight.xyz.