Porfirio and Walk Away Renee Shine at Cannes Film Festival 2011

Film Fiend features dispatches from Miami International Film Festival Director, Jaie Laplante, as he scopes flicks on the indie film festival circuit.

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

Havre

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

tradition.  


Sleeping

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

life stories.


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.

Read Laplante's first dispatch from Cannes 2011.

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