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Tarnation (15)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

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 Caouette’s life-story, from the time his mother required shock therapy, through to his own abuse while in foster care, and the worsening of his mother’s 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 grandparents.

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 on trial.

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 avant-garde film-making.

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.

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