The experience of watching Ste. Anne is a frustrating one. It possesses all the components required for a stirring and unique piece of storytelling, and yet its insistence on visual aesthetic over narrative (or even logical) cohesion renders it ineffectual.
First-time director, and Native Manitoban Rhayne Vermette sets out to tell a story about motherhood, community, absence and the rich spiritual history of the Treaty 1 Territories from which the film gets its title. Treaty 1, established in 1871, was an agreement between the Anishinabe and Swampy Cree Nations and the British government, who wanted to gain control over the fertile lands of South East Manitoba and removal of First Nations people from their ancestral lands.
Renée (played by Vermette), is a young woman who returns un-announced to her rural community after four years away . In her absence, her young daughter, Athene (Isabelle d’Eschamnault) has been raised by Renée’s brother and his wife. Renée must re-assimilate into a tight-knit community and answer some troubling questions about her maternal duty and her future. Not a bad premise at all. The issue is that Vermette seems totally unbothered about making this story tangible or even important to the audience. Dialogue is barely-there, and when it does occur, it is aimless and muffled – more akin to a soundtrack than any concerted effort to engage an audience. Apart from one rousing interaction with her brother which is tantalisingly, frustratingly short, Renée re-joins the community with barely even a ripple of discomfort, or sense of consequence.
There is much to be said for Vermette’s artistic eye. Ste. Anne is beautifully shot on 16mm – pulsing with light leaks, pocked with grit and seething with dark shots of the Manitoban prairies. Alas, it’s not enough to save the film from appearing as merely a series of pretty postcards – of which neither the words, nor the sense of place, time or identity are legible.
Vermette comes enticingly close to telling a moving and unique story, and while her impulses are alluring – a painterly mis-en-scene, a sense of collaborative filmmaking, a desire to depict the unpredictable nature of family, her film is ultimately thwarted by its insistence on aesthetic … and little else.
Ste. Anne has its North American premiere 2021 Toronto International Film Festival
Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: https://thepristineinnerexperience.wordpress.com