V. Speculative Elegy

Miryam Charles’ Cette maison

By Yasmina Price

A young black woman takes off her shoes and opens the door to nothing, before a cut shows her on the other side, revealing a theatrical set of a bedroom. With poetic errancy, Haitian Canadian filmmaker Miryam Charles’ Cette maison (2022) wanders between both evidently artificial and firmly realistic domestic spaces and lush landscapes to conjure a restless meditation on family, loss, hope, and the psychogeographies of colonization. A personal and familial pain was the origin point for the film, dedicated to Terra Alexis Wallace, the filmmaker’s cousin who died when she was only 14 years old. This somnambular cinematic reflection performs a processing of a grief which will never be fully closed. Cette maison stages an impossible temporal space, in which Tessa had enough time to grow into an adult and yet was still lost to the living. The actor (Schelby Jean-Baptiste), who holds a corporal space for a fictionalized version of Tessa, is joined by a stand-in for her mother, Valeska (Florence Blaine Mbaye), in a spectral dialogue and dance of disconnection, as they cut through the film’s different spatialities to find each other, while also never masking the impassable sorrow of their separation. Tangling interior and exterior, as well as multiple temporalities, Cette maison negotiates geographies of loss and luminescent moments of imagined reunion.

Charles takes a prismatic approach to mourning, turning it over from different angles through an intricate meshing of documentation and fabrication. Shot entirely on 16mm, her film sutures the unfathomable loss of Tessa to the particular experiences of a Haitian family in North America. A geographic triangulation of Haiti, Canada, and the United States traces a cartography of colonialism. While these are not the foregrounded concerns of Cette maison, they emerge through feelings of exilic alienation and displacement expressed by Tessa and Valeska. These historically produced dispersals are metabolized through the mother and daughter’s encounters in the film’s fantastical limbo. Two painful and concrete markers of time, Tessa’s birth and death, are the anchors between and around which the film moves with sedative fluidity. Tessa announces her own time of life, emphasizing in several instances that she was born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1994 and died in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2008. Thus re-inscribing her place and year of birth is one of many verbal litanies in Cette maison, as if the repetition of certain words might stabilize not only the formal fugitivity of the film, but also the uncertainties of how to move through grief, offering something to grasp, even if only temporarily.

The first shot of Charles’ debut feature opens its lush cinematography with a brief pan of the ocean, showing a land mass cast in the elusive glow of either early morning or early evening. As the camera shifts to frame the feverish green of an island landscape, the narrative voiceover delivered by Charles speaks in Kreyòl: “My heart is heavy. I can’t carry it anymore. I must lay it down… on the ground. I must leave it. Let it sink to the bottom of the sea so that it drifts… to Haiti. We have to go back. Together. Like a little girl and her mother.” These words establish the affective weight of the film, the intimate familial stakes of the pain at its heart, and the perpetual concern with movements of return. Accompanying gloomy shots from a car driving in rainy Connecticut, the next words of this narrative voiceover establish Cette maison’s register of storytelling: “What we propose, an announcement of things to come, establishing the possibility of fluid journey through time and space. My story is both tragic and full of hope. Hope keeps you alive.” This is a mode of storytelling that is a recuperative effort, and one that freely exposes its fabular method.

These opening minutes and indeed the entire film are held in a tapestry of repeated refrains and phrases. In the following scenes, these exact same words are spoken again, preceded by naming the form of “invented stories, but not so far from reality.” Here the speaker is revealed to be Tessa. She is introduced wearing a lavender pullover and purple skirt, sitting on a plain wooden chair in front of a wall that is partially cast in shadow, making one side light and the other dark, and adorned with a few small, framed images. Tessa announces the itinerary of Cette maison: “We’ll travel through time. Me in an adult body that never existed.” She appears in the same position later in the film, in a black dress with a large white collar and shot more closely, so that framed photographs of a little girl which could be her are more clearly discernable on the wall in the background. The broken clock on the wall is also a reminder that Charles approaches this story unbound by the norms of linear time. After expressing her attempts to both remember what happened to her while being unable to unknow it, Tessa adds, “We’re making it up. That’s what we do here, right? We’re trying. We’re trying to write a story… another story… An impossible story.” A similar statement about “what we do here” comes later, when she notes “I wander… in the land of dreams. That’s what we do here. We’re just pretending.” The stakes of telling an impossible story are expressed throughout Cette maison. In a haunting mise-en-scène of a social welfare visit, where two case workers are shown like a superimposed apparition outside the windows of the family home, their report mentions Valeska’s calm and also that it seems to be an “impossible story.” In this scene, one of them says, presumably to Valeska althought it is unclear, If you let us in, we have to document everything, even what’s ugly, beautiful, and horrible.” An oblique framing of the documentary impulse, this is perhaps also an insight into Charles’ approach, to conjure the irresolvable variances of this story. Charles’ film is fixated on the process of storytelling as self-conscious invention, weaving an awareness of this into the diegetic construction.

While the theatrical sets which accompany these metacinematic elements were a result of the logistical difficulties of making the film during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is yet an ethical charge to these formal strategies. Charles does not attempt a forensic reconstruction of her cousin, but rather addresses the magnitude of her felt absence for their family in a way that doesn’t overwrite Tessa with a pristinely authoritative simulacrum. By insisting on the processes of invention and impossibility, both Charles’ narrative voiceover and the diegetic Tessa vocalize the uncertainties of this fabricated, spectral appearance. Rather than attempting to erase an absence with tidily absolutist presence, Cette maison creates a tentative space of imaginative encounter, which is most closely bound to the relationship between Tessa and Valeska. Charles attends to the ways her cousin is still present to her mother. Whether it could be called a shared “land of dreams,” as Tessa says, or something else, the film generates an oneiric atmosphere. A play between states of dormancy operates throughout, with Tessa shown asleep at multiple points. This creates the impression that she and Valeska are moving through the openness of a dream space in which they can find each other that keeps colliding with a harsh waking reality of the vital barrier between them. In a particularly painful exchange, Tessa tells Valeska, “I could tell you that everything is going to be OK, that it’s just a dream, a bad dream, and you’re going to wake up. […] But it’s not true. You’re not dreaming. No one is going to wake you up or sing the wake-up song. I want to scream.” These words are also mirrored later in the film when Valeska says to Tessa, “I would tell you a story with a happy ending. But I know you hate that.”

Mother and daughter inhabit an alternative spatiality, which emerges through the shifts between the theatrical tableaux and the more realistic recreation of their family home. They appear, a few times with suitcases, sitting in front of a Haitian landscape printed on a large screen inhabiting the otherwise darkened soundstage. This evident artifice is not the film’s only facsimile—Charles was unable to travel to Haiti during the film’s production and so used the island of Dominica as a stand-in. The resulting effect of disorientation, even though it was caused by another pandemic-related travel restriction, augments her film’s thoughtful and intricate disinterest in shoring up a rigidly singular reality. This geographic collapse also points to the film’s possible categorization as Caribbean cinema, through its heterogenous pluralities and the ways it is informed by specific imperial histories and present exigencies of immigration evoked in the film. The rogue compass of Martinican poet and theorist Édouard Glissant is evocative here. Within a body of writing concerned with geographic poetics—which could be a way to frame the errant cartographies in Cette maison—he used the phrase “spiral retelling” to address the relationship between his own Poetics of Relation (1990) and an earlier text. If the phrase may also be read elastically as a spatialized narrative method, “spiral retelling” offers a name for Charles’s approach, as the filmmaker excavates a past tragedy to address its continual presence in a way that frustrates the stability of a beginning and an ending, or even a singular event of storytelling. The spiral retelling favors an entangled relationality which, as Charles announces early on and Tessa repeats, weaves the “possibility of fluid journey through time and space.”

The shifting movements of Cette maison organize a dialectic of connection and disconnection, which is refracted through the conditions of migration and diaspora, crossings between the living and the dead, and between mother and daughter. While Tessa is shown sitting in the blue-toned theatrical bedroom in the studio set, her voiceover muses that she wants to go home and laments, “I feel disconnected. Maybe it’s because of the violence of death.” Walking through the turquoise frame door later in the film, the Kreyòl narration speaks of hearing a little voice repeat, “Here, I am a stranger. Here I am disconnected.” These words, also part of the film’s catalogue of recurring phrases, here pass between Tessa and Valeska, with the latter shown in between those two scenes, saying, “I feel disconnected. I keep asking myself what I’m doing here. I remind myself it’s so I won’t be forgotten. Or so I don’t forget.” The complexities of remembrance are a crucial element in Cette maison’s reckoning with loss and diasporic alienation.

A fear of non-recognition flutters around the edges of Charles’ film as a whole and is made most acute around Valeska. While mother and daughter are sitting on a bench in front of the printed screen of a Haitian landscape on the soundstage, Valeska says, “This street no longer exists. This one… I’m not sure it ever existed.” Returning to the soundstage bedroom, Tessa is shown lying in the bed while her mother quietly enters and sits on the edge, speaking to the sleeping girl about her relationship to Haiti in a mix of memories and speculative meditations. At various moments, such as when she says she could not recognize anything, “Not the faces, not the streets, not the houses, didn’t recognize anything. But I was born here. I grew up here,” Valeska expresses her worries of not speaking Kreyòl, of being unfamiliar with Haiti, as well as the desire for continuity and connection. In an especially haunting voiceover layered over a gloomy landscape meant to depict Haiti, the mother names, “The refusal to be strangers for generations to come” as a determination to not let familial ties torqued by colonization, migration, and death disintegrate.

As Tessa and Valeska are shown hugging in the dining room of the realistically staged family home, Charles’ voiceover says that Haitians, “decorate their houses like museums, with all kinds of trinkets, that represents our past lives, our future lives. All of our dreams and those of our children.” The family home is a particularly fraught domestic geography in Cette maison. Valeska is shown spraying water and tending to an interior so overrun with plants and flowers it almost seems like a garden. This explosion of vegetation collides with the film’s suggestions that inside the presumed safety of the home lurk horrors and the possibility of violence in a way that is evocative of the writing of Martinican writer Suzanne Césaire. She wrote of the natural beauty of Martinique, which could refer to tropical landscapes in the Caribbean more broadly, as a false screen which detracts from its violent histories of slavery and colonization in the essay “Le grand camouflage” (1945). Césaire’s lyrical prose is funneled through an abundance of vegetal and floral metaphors, generating a linguistic vernacular similar to the vegetation of Charles’s visual language. The abundant greenery and flowers in the film’s titular space erode the boundaries between the private space of the home and the public expanses outside of it.

The minor key poetics of Cette maison slip porously between fraught interiors, outside structures that seemed abandoned and overtaken by nature, naked landscapes, and theatrical sets. The film flows through and around these spaces of personal, familial, and diasporic currents. A container of multiple temporalities, Charles’ film is a palimpsest of the speculative present-future in which Tessa survives in some form, is ripped away from but also near her mother, in which the members of their family carry Haiti with them to North America and are always shadowed by the historical currents which brought them there. Not just a haunting but a haunted film, Charles’ tribute to her cousin Tessa and their family fuses the cinematic tactics of speculative theatricality with an elegiac tonality. The verdant alchemies of Cette maison converge grief, loss, remembrance, departure, and return to offer the fragmented solace of a speculative elegy.

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Yasmina Price is a writer, programmer, and PhD candidate in the departments of African American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. She focuses on anticolonial cinema from the Global South and the work of visual artists across the African continent and diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Her recent writing has appeared in Art in America,Aperture, Criterion’s Current, Film Comment, and Film Quarterly.

Fig. 1-6., Miryam Charles, Cette maison (2022), 16mm film stills. Courtesy the artist.

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