Cette Maison review – fragile murder tale weaves a dreamscape around grief

Miryam Charles’s beautiful and unsettling experimental film explores the unsolved killing of her cousin

Writer-director Miryam Charles’s fragile experimental film hovers on the cusp of making coherent sense throughout – and then skittishly retreats from the brink every time, like a ghost with commitment issues. It’s maddening and mesmerising in near equal measure.

There’s a profound sense of loss at the core of Cette Maison, as it weaves a dreamscape around a little nugget of biographical pain: in 2008, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Charles’s cousin Tessa was found hanged in her room, but the autopsy discovered that she’d been raped and murdered before the hanging. The crime was never solved. The film becomes an attempt to resurrect Tessa through drama: the remarkable Schelby Jean-Baptiste plays the dead girl who offers monologues to camera about her life in Haiti before the murder, and then acts out little scenes with her mother Valeska (Florence Blain Mbaye, heartbreaking) as if she’d lived on the edges of the family.

At least, that’s one interpretation; Charles doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to work out what’s going on. Just when the narrative seems to start to come into focus, she edits away to 16mm footage shot on Haiti of beaches, mountains, ruined houses, while a mellifluous but too highfalutin by half voiceover in liquid French drones on about memory, loss, time’s passage, and so on.

Suggesting the work may have theatrical roots, the rooms where the drama unfolds are often composed of bare flats, like the partial rooms of a stage set, with a yawning blackness beyond. At one point, Valeska nurtures a lush tropical garden growing in an ordinary suburban room, like a character in a dream. The whole film is in fact beautiful and unsettling, like a visit to a stranger’s unconscious.

• Cette Maison is released on 4 November in cinemas.


Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

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