The flickering, 16mm of U of M alumna Rhayne Vermette’s first feature-length film, Ste. Anne, speaks more than the limited script of the picture. Just as the narrative follows main character Renée — played by Vermette — and her abrupt entrance back into her family after her equally abrupt exit four years before, the artistic shots of darkness, overexposure and faux-aged film bring an accuracy to how memory functions.
The film follows a linear path of Renée’s rejoining the family in a Manitoba fall, living in the house of her brother, Modeste, played by Jack Theis, his wife, Elenore, played by Valerie Marion and Renée’s own daughter — raised by her brother and sister-in-law in her absence — Athene, played by Isabelle d’Eschambault. However, the highlights of the year — Halloween, Christmas and a Manitoba summer — are interrupted by bursts of visions and memories.
The impact of memory relies on both seriousness and humour in the film. Athene confides in Elenore that Renée “doesn’t resemble the memories [she has] of her,” pointing to the romanticization of memories that happens over time, especially if that figure is someone we love — and in the case of Athene, her birth mother.
In humour, during the Halloween sequence, the funniest line of the film is uttered after the women of the family have gone trick-or-treating as nuns with white coverings hiding their faces — “there’s nothing scarier than a nun!”
In this moment, the niche territory of rural Manitoba becomes manifest, where stories shared by those who survived cruel nuns in the francophone communities of the Prairie province are ignited in the local viewer. Moreover, this moment, juxtaposed against the film as an artistic memoir of a Métis family, suggests that through humour, racism and reconciling past trauma can be broached.
The film is slow. The opening credits last two full minutes of long prairie shots at dusk. However, the slowness eventually hooks you in as you realize the silences between become moments for reverie.
In fact, the film itself acts as a proxy for the narrative as the viewer attempts, along with Modeste and Elenore, to piece together what happened to make Renée leave and what her next move will be.
The familiar Manitoban sound of the train is heard throughout the film, grounding an otherwise artistic picture in realism, paired with the calls of local vireos and sparrows, as well as the notorious honks of Canada geese.
At the core of the film, the complicated relationship of family is brought to light, and the unspoken words between siblings ring loud.
The question of where Renée had disappeared to is just as unanswered as why Modeste and Elenore took it upon themselves to raise Athene. In fact, it begs a third question: what do we owe our family and ancestors?
Though the film doesn’t outright state an answer to this, Renée’s return and purchase of a lot near Ste. Anne, Man. suggests there is no real escape from our past and that the only thing one can do is embrace who we are by where we came from.
Ste. Anne premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) from Sept. 13 to 16. Digital tickets are available at tiff.net.