She scolded God.
It’s been four years since Renée (Rhéanne Vermette) left home without a word. Four years that her brother Modeste (Jack Theis) and his wife Elenore (Valerie Marion) have spent raising her daughter Athene (Isabelle d’Eschambault) as their own. Their reunion is thus not without its confusion as the little girl is suddenly caught between two mothers: one she knows and one she barely remembers. What little does stick in her mind feels different from the woman now set in front of her too just as everything else changes around her. Their tight-knit Treaty 1 territory, Métis (mixed indigenous and Euro-American ancestry) community inevitably begins to reminisce about the past. Stories are told, jokes shared, and fears exposed as Renée’s return carries a foreboding air of danger in tow.
The synopsis for Rhayne Vermette‘s feature debut—note: despite the film’s credits specifically having both Rhéanne and Rhayne listed, they are the same person with Rhéanne being Rhayne’s birth name—Ste. Anne is as simple as that on paper. A woman returns home, nobody is sure what it means, and they all attempt to reconcile their present and past to form a future that benefits them all. There are allusions to the internal struggle between heritage, the notion of land ownership, and reclamation of self throughout as biology and society mix to create new solutions and newer problems. Does Modeste have any recourse if Renée decides to take Athene back? Does Renée owe an explanation for leaving?
Vermette’s film is full of questions—big and small—that linger in the air amidst a formally experimental piece that feels like a visual collage of emotions, expressions, and metaphor caught at the back of brief vignettes captured on 16mm film. The crackle and grain are apparent throughout and yet some moments find themselves consumed by imperfections and halos adding extras scratches and bands of diffused red light to the flickering of Manitoban landscapes, laughter, and fire burning a fresh path forward. The sound is often dialed up to the point where voices become a muffled whirr for which the filmmaker doesn’t even bother to add subtitles. Most of what we absorb is therefore presented via atmosphere alone until we allow the images to wash right over us.
If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea where it comes to cinematic experiences, you may want to pass on this one. While it does retain a narrative as far as Athene goes, the editing style and aesthetic definitely skew more towards the impressionistic end of the spectrum with mood forever triumphing over exposition. It feels very personal as a result. That Vermette includes family members in the cast as well as neighbors from their community only helps cement the sense of shared history that lends the footage a documentary-style richness. Dialogue is sparse and confrontation sparser as these characters hope to find common ground through osmosis until Elenore is finally unable to keep her truth quiet. She loves Athene as her own and dreads losing her.
A white wolf in the snow becomes a sort of chapter header as Vermette alternates silent scenes of nature with louder get-togethers spanning holidays (Halloween brings a funny anecdote about an acquaintance on death’s door), music parties, and day-to-day chores or respite. Athene and Renée gaze through photo albums to resituate themselves with what they’ve missed (the latter’s father even makes an appearance from beyond the grave as a translucent ghost watching over them at the dinner table). And Modeste inevitably can’t help but at least try to get some answers from his sister once fears rise to a fever pitch (with good reason) as Renée’s latest escape gains momentum on the heels of a dark force haunting the empty lots nearby en route to a bittersweet end.
There’s obvious power emanating from Ste. Anne whether you fully understand what it is that’s occurring on-screen or not (I surely didn’t). The acting is effective thanks in part to the familiarity and pent-up frustrations spilling out from impatient looks and necessary restraint in the face of a reality that can’t help but leave multiple people hurt in its wake. Will it be Renée upon heading out alone again? Or Elenore left with nothing but memories of the daughter she loved when no one else could? The sad truth is that one of them must live with the result because they must ensure that Athene’s wellbeing remains paramount. She’s the one they must protect at all costs as the youngest branch of their sprawling family tree’s push forward.
courtesy of TIFF