Review by: Jack Foley | Rating:
IT MAY be a terrific achievement but Jonathan Caouette's autobiographical
documentary, Tarnation, is an emotionally draining experience
that sometimes feels a little too personal for its own good.
The film received a standing ovation from audiences at the 2004
Cannes Film Festival, where it moved many to tears.
But it is also a grossly self-indulgent affair that is likely
to infuriate and frustrate as much as it inspires.
The film in question chronicles Caouettes life-story, from
the time his mother required shock therapy, through to his own
abuse while in foster care, and the worsening of his mothers
condition as a result of her treatment at the hands
of her parents.
Canouette began filming himself and his family at the age of
11, using a video camera he had borrowed from a neighbour, so
that he could use the footage as some form of self-therapy.
The documentary that results has been put together by Canouette
from 160 hours' worth of content (family snapshots, home movies,
audio recordings, video diaries, answerphone messages, movie clips
and pop culture moments) using Apple's iMovie editing software
at a meagre cost of £124 ($218).
It takes in everything from child abuse and self-harm to mental
illness and family dysfunction while offering very little in the
way of hope for either its protagonists or viewers.
Canouette's mother, Renee LeBlanc first received shock therapy,
for instance, at the age of 12.
A former child model, she met and married young, only to separate
before Jonathan's birth.
An attempt to escape from her family to New York ended when she
was raped in front of Jonathan while he was still young.
As a result of Renee's worsening
mental state, Jonathan was placed into foster care, where he was
tied up and beaten, before being placed back in the care of his
By the age of 13, he was sneaking into a gay New Wave club disguised
as a goth girl and coming to terms with his own homosexuality,
while also luring his friends to make underground movies that
included a slasher-flick and a lip-synched musical of David Lynch's
Blue Velvet (completed at the age of 15).
As his sense of isolation and despair grew, so too did his ability
to self-destruct, culminating in multiple suicide attempts and
fits of destructive rage inside his grandparents' house.
Some sort of normality was reached during his mid-20s when Canouette
moved to New York and began acting but his mother's worsening
condition, including an overdose that rendered her brain damaged,
only served to heighten his torment, forcing him to put his family
Given such tragedy, it is little wonder to find that Tarnation
offers no easy answers.
Canouette is still struggling to come to terms with his upbringing
and existence despite having received tremendous acclaim for his
It is a tribute to his creative instincts and capacity for survival
that he has delivered a film of such raw emotional intensity,
yet it also begs the question as to whether it will cause more
pain in the long-run than satisfaction for the moment.
Canouette's torment is now laid bare for all the world to see,
rendering his ability to deal with it personally virtually impossible.
For someone so emotionally fragile, it might prove a dangerous
form of therapy.
Audiences, too, are certain to be divided over its merits, given
that the experience is emotionally wrenching and frequently self-pitying.
So while undoubtedly brave and gutsy in the extreme, and an inspiration
for would-be film-makers, it also may be a little too mixed up
for its own good.