By James Lattimer
When navigating the as-yet-unknown films of a festival program, nationality still provides a persuasive point of reference for some, a feeling underlined by the proud declarations issued by national funding organizations, promotional bodies, or particularly partisan members of the press once titles have been announced. This year’s reduced Berlinale Forum lineup also invites tenuous lines of this kind to be drawn (two films from Argentina, two films from Canada!), although the three Franco-German co-productions shot elsewhere say far more about how films are made in 2021. If such a line thus links Sabrina Zhao’s The Good Woman of Sichuan to Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne, this is not a reason to talk about them together per se. The fact that a 16mm family drama from the Treaty 1 territory and a pristine, digitally shot contemporary reading of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan set in that same Chinese province are equally “Canadian” is more a reflection of the diverse reality of the country, and, by extension, its filmmaking.
For all the obvious differences between these two works, however, mapping their similarities provides an apt framework for finding a way into the distinct yet equally, intentionally impalpable worlds they meticulously craft. Both of these ambitious first features by women allude to established narratives in order to push at their outer reaches, stripping these structures of most of their usual incident and occurrence and filling the resultant spaces with vying, sensorial, frequently hypnotic modes of observation, atmosphere, and dream, expressed via techniques that belong more to experimental cinema traditions than narrative ones.
In an unlikely coincidence, Ste. Anne and The Good Woman of Sichuan both open with a train journey. In Ste. Anne, however, this train is merely heard over the opening credits, although it’s to be presumed that this is how Renée (played by Vermette herself) made her way back to her family after a four-year absence; word of her return comes during a campfire sing-a-long. Her brother Modeste picks her up and soon she is back at the family home, where Modeste and his wife Elenore have been bringing up Renée’s young daughter Athene as if she were their own. Athene is only just getting used to her mother’s presence when Renée starts hatching plans to leave again, proposing to build a house on the empty plot of land she owns in Sainte Anne, Manitoba; the way she shows Athene the photo of the lot suggests that she doesn’t plan to build the house for herself alone.
Although the clanking carriages and chattering passengers are ever-present in the train ride that opens The Good Woman of Sichuan, this first scene is far more about the act of seeing. The camera gazes out the window of the train for a full ten minutes without moving, watching the landscape of what is presumably Sichuan rush by. Hills, forests, rivers, and houses pass in the background, often obscured by foliage and barriers that merge into solid forms in the foreground, the sky progressively darkening until raindrops eventually start streaming over the glass eight minutes in. The frequent tunnels repeatedly plunge the image into darkness, and the reflection of the camera set-up becomes visible in the window each time the light changes. These passages also function as a perfect backdrop for the two intertitles that break up the shot: one a synopsis of The Good Person of Szechwan written by Brecht himself, the other an assertion that this film is neither an adaptation of the play nor a work of fiction. The only fictitious element, apparently, is certain quotes from the play, such as the lines involving a cunning laugh, a tigress, a son, and a profound love recited by two women in voiceover before the shot comes to an end.
While the Brecht play is thus introduced as a loose governing principle for Zhao’s film, Renée’s homecoming performs a similar function in Ste. Anne—the narrative of the family member returning to the fold and setting tensions in motion is so ritualized that it retains a degree of clarity even when exposition is kept to a minimum. This concept appears to dictate how the plot is portioned out in the film, as the majority of narrative information is conveyed either via voiceover or across the few, more conventionally “dramatic” scenes. In addition to the one above involving the photograph of the empty lot, another key moment arrives when Elenore expresses her frustrations about Renée’s return as she washes up with Modeste, who conveys them to Renée as they stand before the landscape shortly afterwards; conversely, Athene’s first attempt to grapple with her mother’s reappearance and Modeste’s initial rebuke of Renée play out in voiceover alone.
With scenes such as these acting as anchors, the rest of the film swirls around them freely, unburdened by the need to advance the plot or provide additional narrative clarity. One focus here is creating an impression of the setting and the people that inhabit it, which involves repeated views of the landscape (usually captured in lengthy, painterly wide shots) and observations of everyday life and various social gatherings, often fragmented via alternating close-ups and detail shots. The campfire sing-a-long is broken down into images of thick mittens, glowing embers, and crimson faces, while a later trick-or-treating trip in nuns’ costumes unfolds via shots of cups on a candlelit table, hands holding white bags, and the neck of a jar of tomatoes that have already gone bad. None of these fragments contain markers of the current era; this could be taking place now, 20 years ago, or even further in the past.
These sets of fragments frequently bleed into others that are far less concerned with straightforward observation: glimpses of the lot in Sainte Anne at various times of the year; a scene where the family look at photographs as Renée and Modeste’s dead father appears as an apparition behind them; a rapidly edited montage of overexposed images of rocks, set to static buzz and a recited prayer; a nighttime encounter in the barn with a bull with glowing horns. With the flickering of the celluloid and its deliberate shifts in colour and exposure serving to smudge or even collapse the boundaries between one mode and another, distinguishing between what is observation and what is subjective impression, what is past and what is present (or perhaps even future), what is hope, memory, dream, or myth is no easy task.
Even if the length of the opening shot of The Good Woman of Sichuan already creates the impression of a journey, the person who might be doing the travelling only emerges over the next couple of shots—which, like the film as a whole, make use of a static camera and exhibit the same interest in extreme duration. In the third shot, a hairdresser comments on the accent of her client, who replies that she’s from Chengdu, not Leshan, where the salon is presumably located; both are obscured by the large fan in front of them. A little later, two women speak in voiceover over a shot of a woman walking her dog down a path that leads from her apartment building, and then another of a lichen-covered sign on a lawn next to the same path; one talks of seeing the other from behind, from a distance, and they talk of meeting again after many years, possibly for the first time since high school. One of them is a theatre actress, who’s working on an adaptation of The Good Person of Szechwan with a female director from Chengdu, who wants to set the play in Leshan and make it “abstract,” “fluid,” “unstable.” The actress isn’t entirely sure what this means, including in terms of her own performance, which is why she has come to Leshan to seek inspiration—which would seem to mark her as the woman at the hairdresser, and perhaps the one travelling on the train as well.
Abstract, fluid, and unstable would be good adjectives to describe The Good Woman of Sichuan itself. Even the two women in voiceover, who sound like those delivering lines from the play during the train journey, can’t be definitively tied to the two women who appear in the previous images and the ones that follow, who are also frequently shown at a distance, from behind, obscured by elements of the mise en scène, out of focus, or wearing masks as they shop for clothes, walk down to the river, or lounge in a hotel room, when they appear in frame at all. These opening scenes exemplify the film’s approach to “character” identification, its apparent core text, and even meaning in general: allusions are made, motifs presented (trains, the river, the hairdresser’s, lines from the play), and connections suggested, but certainty will not be provided. The resultant opacity produces a vaguely oneiric sensation, an impression aided by the focus on duration and the repeated shots of sleeping figures and voiceover references to dreams.
In the absence of an obvious narrative arc, conventional characters, or an overt framework of meaning to forge clear connections between them, sinking into each sustained framing and tracking the changes it contains becomes the only sensible recourse, as every image hardly lacks for structural components of its own. New elements entering the frame, movement within it, changes in light, voiceover, off-camera incidents conveyed by sound, further intertitles, and washes of ambient noise are all used as a means of structuring the images and ensuring they hold interest. A woman sleeping by the windowsill remains undisturbed by the couple heard entering the room; when we return to this space, rumblings of feedback and a droning sound akin to a siren fill the space and a cat emerges from under the bed. Later on, a wide shot of a riverbank is broken up by a lengthy voiceover anecdote, the movements of the two figures seated close to the water, and a shift from cloud to sun. None of these seemingly static shots remains static for long.
It’s easy to imagine how individual sequences from Ste. Anne and The Good Woman of Sichuan could function as sections of avant-garde films, albeit ones from different traditions: many of the impressionistic 16mm montages of nature and plays of light in Vermette’s film suggest the work of someone like Nathaniel Dorsky, while Zhao’s invitation to follow shifts in the frame over time shares a certain kinship with some of James Benning’s digital work. The idea of integrating such modes into some sort of narrative framework is ambitious, but ultimately, neither film manages to accomplish this so seamlessly as to avoid a degree of dissonance. However loose these frameworks may be, they still suggest that some sort of meaning is there to be gleaned, while such experimental techniques can focus on immersion, sensation, and pure form without the pressure to “mean” something. This may not be a problem for those willing to go along for the ride, but anyone hoping for experimentation to give way to clarity will be disappointed, as neither film deigns to fully resolve the ideas it presents, with certain scenes becoming hard to place, let alone grasp. But in both cases, the distinct ways the two directors inscribe themselves into their films, and the additional meanings this carries into them, offer a fruitful reading aid.
Like most things in The Good Woman of Sichuan, Zhao’s presence within the film is more implied than made concrete, although this implication is there from the outset. The brief glimpse of the camera each time the train leaves a tunnel in the first shot is a tacit indication that everything here is being filmed, though the person doing the filming remains unseen. This is expanded on in a later scene of a woman watching another woman on a television screen delivering lines from The Good Person of Szechwan that have already popped up before at various times: someone is not only filming this material, but is also already appraising it, in addition to shooting more than the viewer gets to see.
While this presence could also be attributed to the theatre director within the fiction, interpreting it as Zhao herself leads to some interesting readings. Given that Zhao is herself from Sichuan and currently studying film in Toronto, perhaps The Good Woman of Sichuan is also a homecoming of sorts, an attempt to return a text from the Western canon set in her home province back to that setting and reconcile it with her own individual impressions and sensations of that same place, which may be entirely unrelated to it. As the opening intertitles, the grainier, handheld camera scenes of a wedding near the end of the film, and the lingering views of Leshan all suggest, there is always a degree of documentary on display here alongside the film’s more narrative and experimental modes; and while The Good Woman of Sichuan states that it’s not an adaptation, maybe its constant, seamless shifts in mode are inspired by the uncontrollable oscillations between Shen Teh and Shui Ta in the play.
While the fact that Vermette plays Renée in Ste. Anne, various members of her family play the roles around her, and others make up part of the crew does not necessitate that the film be seen as directly autobiographical, it does invite the viewer to make some sort of connection between what is being shown and Vermette’s background as a member of the Métis Nation who grew up in the same part of the Treaty 1 territory shown onscreen. Given that the film is so concerned with capturing this specific setting and the lives of the people within it, and has emerged from the very community it portrays, no great leap is required to link its more opaque moments to a collective subjectivity, with Vermette’s own impressionistic eye as the intermediary. Read as such, these seemingly unplaceable fragments form part of a broader, deeply personal, deliberately unfettered view of Treaty 1 and the Métis, one in which different temporalities exist alongside one another, the boundaries between plot, observation, and subjective impression are fluid, and one narrative can be constantly interrupted by snippets of others born from dream, projection, or myth. Whether in a Canada currently debating how Indigenous cinema should be made and seen or indeed elsewhere, legibility can never be separated from who is doing the writing, who is doing the reading, and why.