tiff 2021: 'ste. anne' review
Ste. Anne (2021) still credit: Lindsay McIntyre & Erin Weisgerber
Manitoban filmmaker and visual artist Rhayne Vermette spends her phantasmic film, Ste. Anne, lost someplace between memory and present tense. She finds a way of capturing and evoking a daydream, feeling her way through which direction to take. Her narrative floats from one train of thought to another, all reaching for the key destination on Vermette’s map: following a woman’s journey from obscurity to home life. As an evening party journeys into late night, word spreads among a Métis community in Treaty 1 territory (Winnipeg today) about the return of Renée. After being inexplicably missing for four years, Renée returns to her daughter Athene - now living with Renée’s brother Modeste and his wife (who sees Athene as her own). Renée’s presence creates a ripple effect among her surroundings, both people and places, as she re-familiarizes herself with a community familiar and faraway. Flung out of a mysterious past, Renée goes on a fragmented journey of piecing back her life. As her memories unravel into fragments, so too does the film itself. Ste. Anne is a beautiful collage of belonging to places and people, all the while being haunted by a community that’s been lost.
Sometimes referred to as subminiature, 16mm film has a home movie-making quality that makes Ste. Anne feel like an intimate piece of art. With a knack for strong visual storytelling, Vermette takes characters and places on a dreamlike journey through space. Not set in space, but there is a planetary approach to the story in that the film moves like that of a planet. Constantly wandering and shifted. Renée appears as a nomadic character, always on the move even when returning to a life of traditional abode. In her return to the community she once left behind, there is a feeling of unease and unpredictability. Tensions arise between her brother Modeste, his concerns grown from Athene being without a mother, and wanting his sister’s presence to be constant. Vermette's hallucinatory approach poses the question of which narrative events are happening in real-time, and which are residue of a memory. Ste. Anne experiments with great ambiguity that puts the narrative off the map, becoming a puzzle to put together. It’s a great parallel to thinking back on a cherished time, conjuring visual bits and pieces with a strong undercurrent of how each one makes you feel.
Ste. Anne has an intensity that comes in waves, from the use of blaring noise to some of the heightened emotional conversations between family members. For each of these moments, there is one of sombre serenity, and one of haunting apparitions. The film is presented in such a way that shows snapshots of a meaningful moment. Vermette's fragmented narrative is a powerful reflection of how memories float in and out of consciousness, often triggered in unexpected ways. Among the most visually striking are the ghostly elements of Ste. Anne. An unforgettable moment features a family sitting around a dinner table, while a lost loved one appears translucent in the background of a frame. One of the more resonating subjects the film tackles is the lingering power of belonging. The knowledge of loved ones gone but not forgotten, that their place is held close to the family’s heart. Vermette's use of a ghostly apparition is a brilliant way to show the reverberating power of a memory; the ease with which people depart, and the memories left behind in the spaces they once occupied so presently.
Vermette's recurring image of a prairie sky, which appears as the first shot of the film, sets a wistful and intense tone that the rest of the story maintains. Ste. Anne is full of snapshot evocative moments, each its own vignette. With a dreamlike setting, the film weaves through echoes of ideas pondering on belonging. Many of the scenes depicting Renée follow her character as she’s headed elsewhere. There’s a rarity to the scenes where she’s stagnant, as though time is precious and she may disappear at any given moment. There’s always a feeling that Renée has one foot outside the door, a sentiment conveyed strongly during the polaroid scene between her and Athene, in which Renée describes land she envisions returning to. So much of the film traces her character in motion, ready for the next step while also acknowledging and reclaiming moments from the past. Interjected throughout are conversations between family members that often start mid-sentence, like being a fly on the wall listening in on intimate connections.
Ste. Anne follows a thread of family matters, how a community are brought together by way of people and places. Sometimes, a moment as simple as sitting around a table and sharing a meal spills into something far more complex given the intimacy of being physically or emotionally at home. Home is a feeling. These emotions extend far beyond a structure to house them all, and Vermette is skillful at conveying how home travels…it’s in bits and pieces, existing not only in people and places but in the sentimental things. In a polaroid of land Renée envisions returning to. In hearing the name of a place alone, like a town in Manitoba called St. Anne. The narrative of the film has an ambitious sense of time, which gives it a blurry setting but it’s an approach that Vermette pulls off in a trance. She moves vividly through many fleeting moments on screen. But however fleeting they are, the film brings forth plenty to stop and ponder on, making the experience of Ste. Anne a mysteriously inviting one.
Ste. Anne had its world premiere September 13th at the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF21 runs September 9-18, 2021.
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