Porfirio and Walk Away Renee Shine at Cannes Film Festival 2011
Although Film Fiend is over his jet lag, a peculiar feeling of fatigue at the Cannes Film Festival persists. Too many parties? It can't be, I get even less sleep at the Toronto International Film Festival every year, and have enough stamina to see 50+ feature films in 10 days.
Finally it occurs to me: Cannes may be 28 years older than TIFF, but there's one distinct advantage North America's premiere film event has over Croisette glamor: coffee in the cinemas. You can't bring in or even buy coffee once you are inside Cannes venues, and seeing this many films in this short of a time requires a virtual I.V. drip of caffeine
We're through the first weekend of the Festival, which is the busiest
and most relentless part of the Festival. Of the competition films,
I've so far only caught Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's deadpan Le
Havre and Julia Leigh's titillating and controversial Sleeping
Beauty. Jean-Pierre Leaud gives a wonderful performance in Le
as a shoeshiner trying to save an African illegal immigrant in the gray
and industrial port town in the North of France. The movie is typically
simple, delightfully amusing and quietly profound in the best Kaurismaki
Beauty, on the other hand, is like an extended version of the Eyes Wide Shut orgy sequence. Former child star Emily Browning, now
an ethereally beautiful young woman, plays a college student who
disaffectedly takes on a job with a high-class call girl operation that
specializes in sexually degrading innocent, fairy-tale like situations
for very, very rich clients.
The film has been designed to shock, especially by setting the nudity
and degradation in artfully beautiful, almost painterly compositions.
The inspiration of Leigh's mentor, the great director Jane Campion (who
has endorsed the film), is obvious, but unfortunately lacks the dramatic
force of Campion's best work.
An interesting thematic strand floated through the films that I found
most fascinating this weekend: Colombian director (and part-time Miami
Beach resident) Alejandro Landes's Porfirio, and Tarnation director
Jonathan Caouette's Walk Away Renee, a sequel of sorts to his
groundbreaking, classic 2003 film (famously created on an iMac with a
budget of $218.32). Although both films are classified as "features"
(i.e., they do not claim to be documentaries), both films use real life
characters playing themselves and re-enacting the essences of their own
If I had a farm, I'd bet it on Porfirio being headed for a
controversial run through the Festival circuit this year. Porfirio
Ramirez, a small-town bar owner who dabbled in connections with FARC in
the '90s, was shot in the spinal cord during a police raid and paralyzed
from the waist down.
Reduced to a meager existence of renting his cell
phone out to villagers for a few minutes at a time to survive, and
desperate from the lack of movement on his lawsuit for compensation from
the state, Porfiro loaded two live grenades into his adult diapers and
boarded a Satena flight from Cali to Bogota, with VIP politicians on
board. Police tricked Porfirio into allowing the plane to land safely by
appearing to agree to his ransom and then placing him under house
arrest for eight years as punishment for his hijacking.
Here's the part that's going to be controversial: virtually NONE of the
above elements from Porfiro's story are in the actual film based on his
life. This has infuriated some of the people I've spoken with, but in
Landes's defense, it's not fair to expect him to make a Colombian
version of Bus 174.
What IS in the film is a minimalist approach to detailing the boredom
and frustration of Porfirio's daily life as a paraplegic -- the effort
it takes to scratch his back, or take a bath, deal with normal bodily
functions, be able to parent his teenage son and have a physical
relationship with his young girlfriend.
Porfirio is an undeniably magnetic character and I watched every minute
of Porfirio in hushed fascination. Landes has done an extraordinary
job with his minimalist narrative, brilliantly explored a new genre
(some programmers have taken to calling it "hyper-realism," a unique
fusion of the bio-pic and cinema verite style) and in the process
revealed new riches through quiet and stillness.
The "hyper-realism" tag fits Jonathan Caouette's Walk Away Renee
even more appropriately. Tarnation was one of my 10 favorite films of
the last decade, and I was worried that it would be difficult for
Caouette to continue mining his personal experience and life material to
create work that would continue to be as intimate and epic as Tarnation managed to be. But the man who once tried to create a high
school musical adaptation of David Lynch's Blue Velvet is an expert
innovator, and Walk Away Renee is a wonder.
The story picks up six years after Tarnation, and Jonathan's
brain-damaged mother Renee is mentally "decompensating" in the Houston
institution where she lives, as a result of a doctor's decision to
radically change her medication. Deciding he must move Renee closer to
New York so that he can better monitor and intervene in situations where
Renee cannot help herself, Jonathan packs up Renee's belongings in a
U-Haul and drives her cross country to New York (because Renee does not
"do well on planes").
Early in the trip, Renee's 30-day supply of medication mysteriously
disappears, and the desperate Jonathan, determined not to lose control
once again by having his mother committed to a hospital, decides to
tough it out until they can make it to New York.
Along the way, Caouette turns his "hyper real" film into a meditation on
the complexities of the human mind, and how sanity and our sense of
what is "real" are truly precarious when stripped of our human instincts
to interpret the world in a way that will make sense to us as
individuals, in order to function within the randomness of life and
experience. In flashbacks, we return to story elements from Tarnation
to frame the mystical connections, and a prologue involving a
Philadelphia cult calling themselves Cloudbusters, who commission
Jonathan to shoot a promotional video for their explorations of "the
fourth dimension", culminate in a feeling of appreciation and profound
respect for the fragility of our understandings of our selves.
Both films take the conceit of Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's Alamar, the 2010
MIFF Knight Foundation Iberoamerican Grand Prize Jury winner, of
non-professionals acting out their reality in order to show us something
that only a documentary might - and take it even a step further. Porfirio and Walk Away Renee are easily the works that have
thrilled me the most in the new season of cinema.
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