Berlinale 2021 review: Ste. Anne (Rhayne Vermette)

Sometimes in films a series of disjointed imagery and soundscapes are used to convey a dreamspace, the mystical encroaching on the film’s realities, a suspension of the normal rules of play. It’ll last perhaps 20 or 30 seconds, disjoint you somewhat for effect and then safely return you to its protagonists and general narrative drive. Sometimes it is conveying a hallucination or an oneiric interruption – spirit animals will caw, deceased elders will chant. The protagonist emerges unscathed, wiser perhaps. But what if that was the film itself? What if the makers of a film you’ve committed time to and sat down to watch decided for the most part to eschew a script, acting (as we might recognise it), narrative, a communicable sense of purpose, a beginning, a middle or an end? Then we’d be left with three questions: firstly, is it actually a film? Secondly, film or not, is it worth seeking out and giving yourself over to it? And thirdly, what happens if you do?

Let’s address first if it’s actually a film? Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne is described as a first feature, roughly the length of a film and presented to be watched and considered. As such, it perhaps meets the loosest definition of a film I’ve seen outside of gallery video art, which is its nearest correlate (the kind where on a sunny day you accidentally walk into a darkened part of the gallery, people are sat studiously on the floor and a video is being projected, and you stop and watch it a little perplexed). But it is a film, or possibly an anti-film. Set in Manitoba, the press briefing tells us there is a story revolving around Renee, who has returned to a farmstead tended by her brother and his wife. There are some mildly scripted elements that offer a fig leaf of exposition; the first of which is twenty minutes in (a girl explains she now has two mothers), the second about forty. Around them, moments of apparently improvised chat, mostly amongst the women of the town. The overall feeling is of overhearing conversations. The film causes the viewer to start to feel like a ghost, or a child sat on the stairs in the dark listening to their parents entertain friends in the kitchen. It is successful in this: it evokes a wistful dread that isn’t wholly unpleasant.

Is it worth seeking out? Yes, possibly. Ste. Anne is a curio. Rhayne Vermette proves herself a filmmaker with some remarkable skill but indiscernible priorities; for as much as zero time is given over to the script, or acting, or narrative, a remarkable amount of time is given over to cinematography and sound editing. If you were to seek Ste. Anne out, it would be because you are willing to bypass an interest in normal cinematic tropes in favour of an hour and twenty minutes of staggeringly well-composed photography allied to a shifting, heightened soundscape. The camera in each scene is almost always still, characters moving gently in them; there is a great use of contrast and light. Often we see crepuscular landscapes, the focal point a haze. Vermette could teach a lot of filmmakers about composition, she is likely a talented photographer (online one can find examples of collage art that stand as clues to her intent); a shot of a woman at a window is pitch perfect, so too a dozen others. The nearest analogue I can think of is Kiarostami’s 24 Frames. If you’ve seen that film, and can imagine it as a sort of floating fever dream about Manitoba you might get a slight sense of what Ste. Anne is offering the viewer. There is never a clear answer as to why a particular image is used where it is, or why one scene follows another, but perhaps this is not because answers are unimportant but that questions are.

So, what happens if you watch Ste. Anne? Well, you won’t remember much of it afterwards; in this it is like a dream. You won’t have engaged with a story, or characters you care about. But if you’ve watched it with an open state of mind, accepting it for what it is (letting the spirit in as it were), you may come away liking it. Much like the protagonist in a film emerging from their dreamscape you might feel a little wiser (though not in any way you can name). You may never want to watch it again in its entirety, but you’ll know that if you dip into it again one day here and there you’ll be struck by some remarkable photographic composition, an odd pervading feeling, and you may even be inspired to see films a little differently.