Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 14, 2012 2:14 am 
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Burdens cheerfully assumed

Jonathan Caouette caused a sensation with his 2004 debut film, Tarnation. It was a documentary of his life, strewn with disasters and composed by a collage of snapshots and old videos. He had been shooting himself and his family from the age of eight. You may say he is as natural born a filmmaker as they get. Whether he will move on from his life to other topics is hard to say.* What we can say of Caouette's life is that he has survived it. Renée Leblanc, his beautiful young mother, fell off a roof, and as a result was given a lengthy series of electric shock treatments (don't ask). Apparently due to the damage these caused, she began having psychotic episodes. A Hollywood Reporter review describes her diagnosis as " acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder." Her uncertain mental condition continues to this day and requires care and medication, neither of which has ever been adequate, at least for long. Young Jonathan was turned over to his grandparents, Rosemary and Adolph Davism who by his own report, knew "nothing about raising a child," and the treatment he got, from them directly and when placed in a succession of foster homes, was both neglectful and cruel. I called Tarnation "a distasteful and distressing experience." I didnùt like being subjected to this painful and sordid life. But I could not forget it, or deny that Caouette accomplished his purpose. This was one of the best documentaries of the year, and there were some good ones.

Caouette is a survivor. Now he emerges, nancy boy poses in the past, as a really nice guy, and maybe a bit of a saint. Though this new film, despite more professional cinematography and editing facilities, is not as interesting artistically as Tarnation, or as much of a surprise, it is a portrait of love and kindness. Details are still missing -- the reliance on cryptic intertitles remains a limitation when life changes are indicated -- but there is enough to show Jonathan's extraordinary patience in caring for his mother, their affection for each other (in her lucid moments), and the warm home he has made in New York with his longtime boyfriend David Paz.

If you've seen Tarnation, Walk Away Renée provides no new information. It outlines the information in the earlier film, with less about Jonathan's youthful rebellion -- referred to only in passing when he talks to his 15-year-old son Joshua -- or his growing up gay -- and more about the struggle to find a comfortable living situation for his mother and doctors who will give her the best meds. Despite fantasmagoric interludes designed to illustrate the world of Renée's intermittent madness, which are more hi-tech but no better or more necessary than the eye-popping Mac tricks built into Tarnation, this is a simple road movie, with explanatory interruptions. And -- again partly because of the reliance on telegraphic intertitles -- the time sequence is not always very clear. The focus is on a time in 2010 when things had gone wrone with Renée's meds in Texas and he decided to set her up at an assisted living facility for mental patients in Rhinebeck, NY, closer to Jonathan's home.

Only along the way -- and this happened once in the years recounted in Tarnation -- all the meds needed to care for Renée and keep her stable during the weeks before she can enter Rhinebeck, disappear. Some of the most intense moments involve Jonathan's calls to doctors or other medical personnel trying in vain to persuade them to prescribe new meds. And as the trip progresses, we see Renée's mental state deteriorate.

It never ends, because once his mother is installed at Rhinebeck, it emerges that she's been taken off lithium and put on a succession of anti-psychotic drugs (also nothing new) that are making her agitated and incapacitating her physically.

Both Jonathan and Renée, however, remain mostly loving and good humored. It is not as an innovative documentary but a portrait of family loyalty and affection that this film is memorable. Efforts to add sci-fi elements and link madness to the fourth dimension or some cosmologists' (such as Michyo Kaku, seen in a brief TV excerpt) theory that our cosmos may be a bubble linked to others, are not organic with the vérité doc elements, and don't add anything much. Similar divagations marred Tarnation, but their handmade quality, plus their tie-in with the young Jonathan's experiments with sexual identity and explorations of filmmaking, made them fit in better with the earlier film.

Adoph, the grandfather, is also woven in and out of the story. He too was taken to Jonathan and David's place in New York for a while, having become confused and senile; he eventually dies. At one point Renée and Adolph are sleeping in the same room. They don't get along very well. Later, at 15, Joshua has come to live with Jonathan and David, and pronounces himself happy there. The sequence of all this is not entirely clear to me. Renée is allowed to go back intermittently on lithium, which Jonathan thinks the only thing that stabilizes her, but doctors have declared that it is causing major liver damage and will kill her. The film ends with all this up in the air. And what has Jonathan been doing in between films? Walk Away Renée, though less innovative technically, less comprehensive, and less surprising, is almost as claustrophobic as the previous film. But though we couldn't imagine living his life, we emerge feeling that he has lived it with a surprising amount of grace and kindness. I hope Caouette makes more films, perhaps about totally different aspects of his life, such as what he was doing between 2003 and 2010, left a black hole here.

Walk Away Renée was produced with a number of French film aid grants, and debuted at Cannes 2011, showing also at Moscow and some other festivals. It entered Paris cinemas May 2, 2012. It has gotten respectful reviews (Allociné press rating: 3.4), which tend to agree as I would that Caouette and his mother are "engaging," and that this film is uneven but still shows undeniable talent.


*Caouette has made one 82-minute feature documentary between his two autobiographical ones: the 2009 All Tomorrow's Parties, "A kaleidoscopic journey into the parallel musical universe of cult music festival" of that name. His musical sense is also shown in appropriate songs at certain key moments of Walk Away Renée.

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