Rhayne Vermette was 32 years old when she ran away from home—home being Notre Dame de Lourdes, Manitoba, then an unincorporated community with a population of just over 700. This was far from the first time she left town; she’d studied literature at the University of Winnipeg and architecture at the University of Manitoba. She decided to escape at a transitional point in her life, as she was teaching herself to make films. “Dramatically, I left with only my cat and copies of all the still and motion images taken by my father,” Vermette writes in the notes accompanying her 2016 short Les Châssis de Lourdes. Like flickering visitations, those images Vermette absconded with resurface in her 2014 short, Extraits d’une famille: children scurry around a kitchen table, two teenagers play hockey, a teenage Vermette shuts her bedroom door. This is the ’90s, but the graininess of the footage, the bowl cuts, and the house’s retro wood paneling suggest we’ve traveled even further back into the 20th century.
Somewhat surprisingly, these images are not burdened with the finality of estrangement. Vermette remains close with her family—in fact, they’re treasured artistic collaborators. Her father, Roger, contributes key voiceover to Les Châssis, in addition to being the film’s ghostly cinematographer. “When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details,” he begins, reciting lines delivered by David Byrne in True Stories (1986). “I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.” We might understand Vermette’s description of running away as a founding myth for her art, a starting point for her to rediscover these details. In her work, departure and return are cyclical, and her ambivalence about belonging propels her debut feature, Ste. Anne (2021).
Les Châssis de Lourdes (2016)
A different quotation springs to mind, from modernist architect and interior designer Carlo Mollino: in 1949, he wrote that a home contains layers upon layers that need to be peeled back, concealing “the negative and petrified image of the animal living within: it is the practical expression of a feeling.” Vermette discovered this text while studying architecture; at the time, she was curious about how we conceptualize and structure space, but described her experience of the program as a “masochistic ritual of feeling shitty all the time.” For one of her seminars, she experimented with making an animated short, the Malevich-inspired Black Rectangle (2013), and found that the exercise was actually pretty fun—she’d liberated herself from academia’s constraints in favor of a more rewarding mode of exploration. Her earliest shorts are collage-based: she foregrounds sprocket holes, photochemical splotches, the pink color of aging film. But many of these films, according to program notes from TIFF, are “unprojectable,” so thickly layered that they need to be digitally scanned to be viewed. This heft of photographic material—and Vermette’s frenetic digital edit—creates a cocoon for the petrified beings that dwell on the negative.
These negatives often depict domestic interiors, or the farms and open spaces of Manitoba. Fantasy-laden narratives emerge: in Tudor Village: A One Shot Deal (2012), we learn through scraps of seemingly found voiceover that Winnipeg’s population has abruptly fled the city, bewitched by an eclipse, and the caretaker of the mysterious “Tudor Village” is trying to coax them back to his apartment block. Natural wonder and commercial real estate are forever at odds.
In Les Châssis, Vermette lingers on images of an empty bedroom in her childhood home, light pouring in through the window—an unseen speaker reflects on how these seemingly endless lots of houses were once open fields. Of Métis descent, Vermette’s investment in land development and ownership also evokes the colonization of Canada, a forceful specter haunting any straightforward notions of home. In one of the interviews included in Exovede in the Darkroom, a new critical publication on her work, Vermette suggests that this also inspired her interest in elliptical narratives—they reject the expository rigidity of the three-act structure, which she terms a colonial construct.
Tudor Village: A One Shot Deal (2012)
So she arrives at Ste. Anne, a spellbinding reworking of her favorite film, Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984). Like Wenders, Vermette also begins with a shot of open lands, this time a Manitoban field at dusk or dawn, and in walks her stoic protagonist, Renée—played by the director herself, by necessity, after the original casting choice fell through. Renée has returned to her rural Métis hometown after running away four years earlier; she reunites with her young daughter, Athene (Isabelle d’Eschambault), whom she’d left in the care of her brother (Jack Theis) and his wife (Valerie Marion). All the while, Renée clutches a photograph of an empty lot in the nearby community of Ste. Anne, folded in quarters and heavily worn. Renée tells Athene that her parents had always wanted to move here to build a house, and she’s bought this land for them to live out that dream. Whenever Renée’s fingers graze the creases of the photograph, she sets off tremors in the film’s sonic ambience. Although her brother hears “fearmongering” in her comments about the land’s haunted qualities, these resonances are more complex for Renée.
These are the bones of Ste. Anne, but so much more is conveyed in its uncanny vignettes; an early scene is set at a campfire, and the white-outs that conclude each chapter make it look like the 16mm film is crackling up in embers. Vermette stages domestic scenes with striking gel lights reminiscent of Robby Müller. She also lingers on the textures of woven textiles, tablecloths—and especially curtains. Often, Ste. Anne’s matriarchs are stirred awake in the night by mysterious noises; they pull back their curtains to peer outside into the darkness, before retreating back into their bedrooms—though, one of them eventually follows a wolf into the forest, an image Vermette sourced from Métis folk tales. These dreamlike glimpses of housebound women contrast with the litany of domestic tasks they perform during the day. At evening gatherings, Renée sits tensely on the outskirts of conversations about traditional feminine roles of motherhood and homemaking; dressed in a fringe jacket and trousers, she cuts a more androgynous figure than the other women. Although she’s felt pulled back to her roots, she’s still reckoning with her initial departure—and the kind of future she might build with Athene.
Ste. Anne (2021)
It’s possible to describe Ste. Anne as something akin to an apparition, but this would obscure the collaborative practice that Vermette values behind the scenes. The film was commissioned by the Indigenous-led collective COUSIN, and though it was scripted, it was produced and shot over 14 months in an improvisatory, reactive style with family and friends—the credits include five cinematographers, and several members of the Winnipeg Indigenous Filmmakers Collective. Each voice expands the community portrait, especially in group scenes; characters don’t share stories as if they’re bound to the dialogue, but more like they’re meandering down their own idiosyncratic pathways.
Even when Vermette makes work in isolation, she brings imaginative labor to the forefront—think of the narrative world of Tudor Village, or the photochemical symphony she builds from layering found filmstrips in Tricks Are for Kiddo (2010). In fact, her short Domus (2017) seems to want to all-out debunk the myth of the artist-as-conjurer. Vermette uses stop-motion animation to shuffle cut-out collage scraps around her desk; she makes her empty office chair rotate, and her cat materializes like a friendly daemon throughout the space. Here sits the invisible artist, represented by the fluttering elements that she is animating. In these films, nothing is magical; Vermette and her collaborators unpretentiously gather the details to see a place as it really is.
Chloe Lizotte is the managing editor of MUBI’s online publication Notebook. She writes on film, new media, and comedy for Reverse Shot, Vulture, and other outlets.