(Exovedate Productions, 2021)
I watched Ste. Anne (2021), Rhayne Vermette’s debut experimental feature, in the most deplorable viewing conditions, in a small, hot room by a hissing radiator, with snow plows rumbling outside and the blinding sun making dark scenes practically invisible. Still, it is one of the most perfectly pictured and wondrous sounding movies I’ve seen. Every seeming diversion in the movie bursts with ideas—so many in fact, that I’m certain I lost most of them. I suppose that’s one definition of a robust artwork: there’s more going on than any one person can possibly track. For that reason, I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to forget Ste. Anne, which left a vivid imprint in my mind of snapping images and auditory blasts. It was almost overwhelming, even on a second viewing.
The film follows Renée (played by Vermette) as she returns to her small Francophone Manitoba hometown after a four-year absence during which she’s left her daughter, Athene (Isabelle d'Eschambault), in the care of Modeste (Jack Theis) and Elenore (Valerie Marion), Renée’s brother and his wife. The pair has become attached to the girl, and Elenore is especially anxious: Why has Renée returned so suddenly? Is she here to steal back her daughter? Where has she been, and why is she acting so coy? “I feel like everything’s changed since Renée arrived,” she tells her husband. “I’m scared.”
A lot of Vermette’s life is in the film. She was born in 1982 and raised in the village of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, a hundred kilometers outside Winnipeg. Her Métis ancestry (meaning of mixed European and First Nations heritage) figures strongly in Ste. Anne and serves as its ingenious postcolonial framing device. “I was primarily trying to break up the three-point narrative—I think that’s a really colonial construct,” Vermette told the blog MUBI Notebook. “I really like to work with circular narratives and have things intersect, and see how you can build a story that way.” Métis stories suggested a way to tell those kinds of narratives. “I was reading a lot of Métis folktales, and they were really quick, jokey, and to-the-point. They helped set the pace of Ste. Anne.”
One of the ways Ste. Anne upends Western narrative tradition is through collaboration. The film was made over the course of two years by scores of the filmmaker’s partners, including members of the Indigenous Filmmakers Collective (Amanda Kindzierski, Charlene Moore, and Janelle Tougas all worked on the movie), five cinematographers, groups of Vermette’s cousins, her mother, her father, a niece, one nephew, and several aunts and uncles. Everyone was “hyper-involved in Ste. Anne—some make appearances in front of the camera,” Vermette said. “And there were always people helping behind the camera.”
Vermette and her colleagues work in seemingly every register to break Western convention, speeding up the plot beyond expectations at times, and slowing it down significantly at others, all of which magnifies Renée’s sense of vague confusion and looming doom. In one hectic scene, she reunites with old friends and the group dresses as nuns and go drinking and trick-or-treating. They get into an altercation: the husband of a neighbor becomes aggressive, grabbing at one of the women, trying to take off her tunic. The nuns fight back, and one of them steals a jar of the tomatoes the man has been canning for winter. The nuns later shriek about their success over another glass of liquor.
Later, in a quiet conversation with her daughter, Renée shows a Polaroid of a barren plot of land she owns far away, where she hopes to build a house. The scene unfolds softly, with just the two of them practically whispering to one another. Yet even this conversation carries a sense of apprehension: part of the reason for Renée’s escape plan is that she’s developed a nameless sense of dread about the hills around her family home. “Your fearmongering is really upsetting,” Modeste tells her later.
Coming up with comparable films, especially for anyone miseducated by the approved canon, is an exercise in delirium. Daughters of the Dust, The Power of the Dog, Drifting Clouds: those are the films I thought of first. There is a case to be made for considering them all together. Like Julie Dash’s dreamlike vision of the Gullah communities of the American South in Daughters of the Dust, Vermette’s Ste. Anne concerns a potentially devastating homecoming; like the slow burn of Jane Campion’s Western thriller, The Power of the Dog, Ste. Anne’s sinister implications multiply slowly; and like Aki Kaurismäki’s tragicomedy about aspiring petite bourgeoisie shopkeepers in Drifting Clouds, Vernette’s debut feature expresses, and not only depicts, a forlorn sensibility about modern life without ever losing its sense of dark humor.
What really binds these comparable films is imagery: all these finely paletted films are soaked in color. Ste. Anne, which is often washed out in smokey blue tones, looks like a Jasper Johns gray painting. That’s where the delirium kicks in: do these movies really look all that much alike, or is it the peculiarly powerful effect of Ste. Anne that it colors everything around it? It must be partly the latter, considering Vermette’s background in illustration. Six of her previous twelve films are animated, and another, Black Rectangle (2013), is a mix-and-match take on Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), reimagined through the careful deconstruction of found 16 mm footage. Vermette thinks in images. In the future, she said to Notebook, she’d like to make an IMAX film, “collaging on IMAX cels.” She’s already begun something like that project in Ste. Anne, which throughout includes soft-celled splashes of color, like filters over the picture.
Sound is another aspect of image, “a way for me to think about how I can put something in my image that’s missing,” Vermette said in Notebook. Like a J Dilla or Madlib track (the DJs who “taught me the most about editing,” she said), Ste. Anne is layered in auditory intrusions, many of them suggested in post-production by Bret Parenteau, who created the film’s score. There are several scenes throughout the film in which Renée makes her way slowly through fields, haunted by a humming, ghost-like chorus. Yet watch Ste. Anne in a noisy room with a hissing radiator like I did, and you’ll find it almost impossible to peel apart what’s happening inside the film from what’s happening out. How many films make that a virtue?
Because in the end, ideal viewing conditions are a fiction. I take that to be one of Vermette’s points: the world always finds its way into experience. A critic once said, an artwork is what you had for lunch just before. Still, it would have been disingenuous for me to write anything about such a splendid movie without going back and watching it again. Just because there are no ideal viewing conditions doesn’t excuse intellectual dishonesty. I wasn’t sure which was which, so I returned to the small room where I saw Ste. Anne for the first time, this time on a warmer winter evening with no hissing radiators, to try it again. What I saw was even more remarkable than the first time around, a film that, despite its abrupt jumps in emotional register and tone, is remarkably clear about itself. A friend called it a tone poem. It is, in large measure, a mood piece, which comes across immediately in the opening sequence, as Renée, wandering into town from seemingly nowhere, slowly makes her way to her family. From the beginning, you know Ste. Anne will test your patience. But impatience is bred by conventions. And conventions? They’re nothing but insidious fictions.