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„Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.”

 (Theodor W. Adorno)

 

A reflection on a culture of origin – or an attempt at self-determination that can only succeed if peace is made with the past? STE. ANNE moves between these two poles for quite some time, without clearly preferring one over the other. In any case, it is a feature film debut with autobiographical references: even the title refers to the town in the province of Manitoba where the family of the Canadian filmmaker Rhayne Vermette settled long ago. Before there is any narrative focus, there is poetic evocation: Vermette's film is an ode to the land of her ancestors, who, like herself, were Métis, an ethnic minority that emerged at the end of the 18th century from the union of French settlers and Indigenous population groups.

The country, which is at once an object of observation and a „state of mind,“ appears in the film to be both close and remote. Close, because for Vermette it is a familiar environment, a landscape she knows all too well; remote, because the landscape in STE. ANNE does not offer a realistic setting through which the protagonists habitually move. Indeed, it is de-familiarized right from the start: the very first shots of the film, filmed at the midpoint between day and night, allow the viewer to pass through a kind of threshold, to enter a twilight zone. The viewer is treated to painting-like images of a steppe-esque landscape with powerful cloud formations, accompanied by birdsong and restrained ambient sounds that briefly surge in a threatening manner.

A scar on the family structure

The woman who walks wearily through one of these images is called Renée. Years after her mysterious disappearance, she returns to the settlement where her daughter Athene, who has since been raised by Renée's brother Modeste and his wife Eleanor as their own child, lives. Before we learn anything more about Renée's motives, Athene addresses her mother in an intimate voiceover-monologue, expressing the hope that she will finally be able to get closer to her and open up about the ghosts that haunt her.

Vermette embeds Athene’s inner monologue in a scene of communal togetherness; the film returns to scenes of this kind again and again: people gathered around a campfire, singing a folk song, at a table. After an atmospherically ambiguous beginning, the joy of reunion now prevails. However, the separation has left a scar on the family structure – Athene's understanding of self is challenged. Does she now have two mothers? Is she „just lucky,“ as she puts it to a friend?

For both Athene and her mother Renée, the reunion leads to an attempt to get to know their roots better. Vermette, however, does not resort to the rules and conventions of fiction to narrate this process of a rapprochement and confrontation with the past. We see daughter and mother leafing through family albums together, but in the very first of these scenes, the pictured father enters the frame as a transparent phantom. This is not eerie: he eats an apple and looks down at the others in a friendly manner. One can interpret the scene as the first indication that STE. ANNE is a film concerned with juxtaposition: about images that can be memories, visions or impressions, or several of these at the same time, but rarely realistic documents.

Photographs have a special significance as artefacts in the film. Renée has a crumpled old photograph of a plot of land in Ste. Anne that she has acquired and where she would like to settle one day. The picture is an object of longing and at the same time a hand-held oracle showing her the path to a self-determined future – even though her project only seems possible via the detour of mythical prophesy being fulfilled. Athene, in turn, pins a picture of her mother from the family album on the wall. When she touches it, she appears to trigger a chemical reaction that makes the film image tremble and, in the form of changing colour nuances, activates an inner intensity of the image and its affective potential.

Physical interweaving of image and world

According to the semiotician Charles S. Pierce, the photographic image (on film material) maintains an indexical connection to reality. It is a physical sign, an impression of light and also the result of a medial transmission all at once. With her work, Vermette consciously attaches herself to this physical interweaving of image and world. She even goes beyond this when she ascribes magic to the image, a surplus or residue of transcendence that remains hidden to the naked eye. Horror films (think of the horrific photograph of the girl at the beginning of Nicholas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW) have repeatedly made this mysterious charge of images their own.

STE. ANNE, however, is more about a spiritual-cosmic flickering, about the co-existence of different levels of time and being. Images seem most capable of connecting to the cyclical principle in Métis culture. Thus, the film’s temporality remains deliberately unclear, with past and present seeming to overlap; at the same time, however, for Vermette the camera itself is always a medium for creating a relationship to these earlier traditions. The fact that she herself is seen in the role of Renée (and that various other family members appear throughout) lends additional urgency to this artistic examination of her own story of origin.

The commitment to film as a material is essential to Vermette's aesthetic approach. She shoots on 16mm with a Bolex camera and through her practice she refers to methods from experimental and avant-garde film; in interviews she mentions, for example, the thrill resulting from the fact that one never knows with certainty what the final developed image will look like. In her short films, she has made the materiality of celluloid film even more explicit, or tied fiction itself back to the fleeting nature of the medium. In LE CHÂSSIS DE LOURDES (2016), which corresponds most strongly with STE. ANNE, she reflects on her escape from the family circle and then, from her new-found distance, works through the films and photographs which her father shot with the camera he then passed on to her.

 

 

Short film LE CHÂSSIS DE LOURDES (2016) by Rhayne Vermette

Kurzfilm LE CHÂSSIS DE LOURDES (2016) von Rhayne Vermette

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By means of a flowing, high-frequency montage, she creates a vortex with footage of her childhood house, which, with the help of the medium of film, deconstructs the imaginary place commonly referred to as „home,” noting the term’s dual significance as both a physical edifice and an intangible concept. Memory is made recognizable as a construction, and the private environment, which is once again traversed, or rather scanned, in images, is expanded into a collective space. By making the film material visible, the single frames, the soundtrack and the perforation of the film strip, Vermette also turns the semantic units inside out. She rearranges and animates (even in the editing of the individual frames) the source material, and uses various registers of sound, from quotations to songs and chansons to creaking noise

LE CHÂSSIS DE LOURDES, as a (re)appropriation and expansion of a family history, is a „home movie“ that is nevertheless different from STE ANNE. For it is Vermette’s feature-length film that poses the question of how belonging to a traditional but already fragmented culture can be reconciled with a modern woman’s individualistic demands. Instead of following a progressive plot, Vermette creates passages that she then relates to one another using a method similar to sampling (she cites the hip-hop artist and producer Madlib as one of her role models). Motifs are intoned, recede into the background, and taken up again later. One is the matriarchal structure of the Métis community, which becomes apparent early on in the film, in the convivial get-togethers where anecdotes about the past are exchanged. The sequence, in which the women dressed as nuns in anachronistic costumes with bandaged faces go from house to house is particularly haunting. If at first you think you're in a horror film, later the scenario is revealed to be a ritual that ends with an exuberant feast made from scavenged delicacies – a rebellious act that creates a sense of community among the women.

Metaphysical assembly of moving images

Vermette embeds such passages in impressionist landscape panoramas, in which nature (and its spiritual forces) achieve an independent presence in the materiality of the film. The shots of barren autumnal forests, wintry snowscapes, and rivers, which feature fragile textures and shifting colour intensities, do not function simply as poetic interpolations. Rather, they provide a larger resonant space for the changes beginning to take place in the family structure. Repeatedly, the grandmother is seen gazing out into the night, at the moon and a stray dog, as if she detects an omen in them. Nature has a somatic quality that is also manifested in the grain of the 16mm images or the veils of colour that lace the images – an effect heightened by the complex sound design. At one point, wrinkled hands dip into a body of water and seem to set off a chain reaction on the sound level. When frost patterns on windows, ornate enamel and swirls on the water come together in a figurative round dance, it tells as well of a cosmic roof over people and things.

This is also evidenced by a key scene in which the immanence of this community – one is reminded of a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul – emerges most clearly in the film: as if in a daydream and in slow motion, Renée climbs a hill on which there are tents. Then, the horns of a bull, snorting like a natural deity, glow in the dark while Renée relates her premonition of a coming disaster. Did you create these images, she asks the creature? Or is this only the sad result of another self-representation?

That of course remains up in the air in STE. ANNE, but inevitably one thinks of the director herself, the actual creator of this metaphysical assembly of moving images. Renée's path to independence is not only available at the price of a break with her culture of origin. The desire to stand on her own two feet with Athene paradoxically brings her closer to her own roots. But the medium of film remains decisive, preparing the ground for the reconciliation of the opposing worlds: their realities and the spiritual space of the family tradition. This is what gives form to magical thinking.

 

Dominik Kamalzadeh is editor for the culture section of the daily newspaper Der Standard and part of the editorial team of the film magazine Kolik.Film. He lives in Vienna.

Translation: Anne Thomas

Vimeo channel of Rhayne Vermette

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