Written by Michael Clawson
The natural landscape of Manitoba takes on an ethereal quality in Ste. Anne, the experimental first feature from Canadian writer/director Rhayne Vermette. Intuitive editing conjures a sense of floating about the rural area’s cold and austere terrain, and an evocative wash of synth on the soundtrack suggests the haze of a daydream. While there is a plot that gently propels the movie forward, Ste. Anne is most arresting for its nebulous atmosphere.
As in Paris, Texas, a film that Vermette cites as one of her key reference points, the story involves an unexpected homecoming. Vermette plays Renée, a young woman who to the surprise of her family, returns to Manitoba after some time away. There, her daughter has been raised by her brother and sister-in-law. The family dynamics aren’t crisply outlined, but rather are vaguely suggested. Renée’s unexplained absence has resulted in tension with her brother; Renée’s brother and his wife wrestle with what to do now that the mother of the girl they have raised has reentered their lives. To call Ste. Anne a family drama, however, would be way off the mark. The narrative is wispy, and Vermette leans more towards the avant-garde with her filmmaking rather than toward conventional fiction.
Shot on 16mm over the course of the two years, the film’s images are exquisitely tactile. Vermette follows Renée as she tries to settle into some semblance of ordinary daily life, and pays more attention to the light and texture of the Manitoban setting than to herself as a performer. Overcast skies hang above the empty fields that Renée wanders around aimlessly at dusk and dawn. Candles and oil lamps glow inside the ramshackle house where we watch Renée and her family intimately socializing and performing domestic chores. Paired with the textured soundscape and engulfing ambient score, Vermette’s visual craft is hauntingly immersive.
Where the film does falter is in the integration of scripted drama into its mood-first design. Dialogue scenes are encumbered with affectation, such as when, near the film’s end, Renée’s brother finally voices frustration about his sister’s disappearance and mysterious return home. It leaves the characters feeling flimsy. But every time it falters, Ste. Anne shortly thereafter draws you back into its filmic poetry, which leaves a stronger impression than its dramatic flaws.
Ste. Anne Trailer
“Ste. Anne” is on Criterion Channel.