Miryam Charles, Canada 2022
It is rare that a film in the Forum section of the Berlinale actually impresses me beyond the superficial. As Forum highlights experimental films, more often than not the selections err more on the side of plastic bag floating in the wind symbolically, rather than the sort of cohesive narrative feature that is more to my taste. However, CETTE MAISON is the rare exception, both experimental in style and structure, while also keeping enough narrative structure to cement its place as a powerful piece of cinematic mourning.
In 2008, 14-year-old Tessa is found hanging in her bedroom. At first, it is presumed that it was a suicide, but the autopsy later discovers the gruesome truth of sexual assault and murder. This murder represents a break in reality in which time and space no longer follow normal guidelines. CETTE MAISON is an imagined biography of Tessa written and directed by her cousin Miryam Charles. Tessa (played by the Haitian-Canadian actress Shelby Jean-Baptiste) is the age that she would have been today had she lived. She is a spirit and an active participant in the aftermath of her death, consoling her family members, wondering about how she will be remembered and the impact her life will have on those who knew her. This is interspersed with scenes of Haiti, the US, and Canada, giving an extra layer to the story about the struggles of trying to survive in a new environment as a migrant.
While CETTE MAISON is certainly an experimental and challenging piece of cinema, it overall succeeds in making a lasting emotional impact. This is a cathartic and very personal work with a deeply Haitian expression of life, death, and what follows. Shot in 16mm, the film feels like it takes place in a hazy past, an atmospheric choice which fits with the subject of spirits and memory. While not every scene lands perfectly, there are many moments which are truly moving, and it is certainly a unique use of cinema to work through the painful process of mourning after a devastating loss.