When “Tarnation”–Jonathan Caouette’s non-fiction account of his troubled family life–made the festival rounds in 2003, it was considered a cinematic revelation. Famously putting the whole thing together in iMovie, he assembled a collage of photo albums, home movies, voicemails and other fragmentary content, proposing a microbudget approach to personal filmmaking that had no specific precedent. Too poetically constructed for consideration as a conventional documentary, “Tarnation” documented the profound truths of Caouette’s transition into young adulthood. Yet instead of launching a new vision, “Tarnation” left the impression of a happy accident, as the director never made a movie like it again–until now.
“Walk Away Renée,” Caouette’s long-awaited third feature (he directed a documentary about the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in 2009), also takes the form of an existential self-portrait. Once again, the main source of Caouette’s strife is his mentally ill mother Renée, a woman whose experience with shock treatments in the 1950’s left her permanently debilitated. In “Tarnation,” Caouette combined descriptions of his relationship with his mother and the rest of his family to the world he discovered when he moved away. While Caouette has now entered a more settled stage of life, his mother remains as troubled as ever. The irony of the title (borrowed from a sixties pop song) is that Renée can’t walk away from her internal demons, and neither can her son.
The fundamentals of the plot concern Caouette’s attempts to find proper medication for his mother and place her under safe care in a halfway house. But it unfolds in a far less tangible fashion than implied by that description. Caouette opens with a surreal prologue tracking his encounter with a Philadelphia-based cult convinced that healing powers from the fourth dimension can be found in the human birth canal (or something like that). He accepts a gig to direct a promotional video for the group, and then the incident promptly drops out of the picture.
Several months pass. The 38-year-old filmmaker lives a stable life with his partner and 12-year-old son in New York, while his 58-year-old mother slowly loses her mind. Both bipolar and schizophrenic, Renée suffers from permanent brain damage, the result of an overdose on lithium in 2002. She’s alternately confused, angry and lost, a collection of moods that Caouette handles with a constant weary expression.
When he decides to move her from Houston to an upstate facility, the movie briefly assumes the form of a road trip, tracking their progress through several states in a U-Haul while occasionally flashing back to earlier moments in their collective history. The trip takes a dark turn when Renée loses her lithium prescription and Caouette comes up short in search of a replacement.
That’s about as close to a specific conflict as the movie comes. Eventually, Renée reaches her destination and Caouette can’t find a way to keep the momentum alive. Littered with inspired moments, “Walk Away Renée” falls short of the potential to put an existential spin on his mother’s illness, as if he kept coming up with good ideas and never conceived of a thorough strategy for stitching them together. Nevertheless, Caouette successfully gives the scenes with his mother an emotional validity that correlates with the intensity of his montage.
That’s true even when the structure flies off the rails. The narrative devices from “Tarnation” make a return here: Basic captions provide rudimentary context, while superimposed still images and intimate home video flesh out the visual scheme. A lively rock soundtrack underscores the rhythmic flow.
Contemporary footage mainly involves Caouette on the phone with his mother and her doctors, usually on the verge of tears. While the sight of a weepy filmmaker in his own project has become something of a taboo in the documentary field, Caouette mostly gets away with it because his presence in the movie feels like a bonafide performance, one of the many props he deploys. There are others: In one memorable bit, he cuts to an eruption of trippy CGI visuals, displaying a computerized perspective of the solar system that veers toward Earth and literally winds up in his backyard. (Now there’s something you can’t do in iMovie.) If only there were more boldly abstract moments like that.
Nevertheless, the distinctive qualities of “Walk Away Renée” indicate Caouette’s creative juices still flow as strong as ever. The project gives the sense that he’s swinging wildly at major ideas about the irrationality of the universe as the cause for his personal woes, but he can’t quite figure out the big picture.
If he had a few similar movies under his belt by now, “Renée” might constitute a minor entry. Instead, the eight years that have passed since “Tarnation” unfortunately set the bar too high. At the very least, “Renée” indicates that, coupled with Caouette’s bizarre recent narrative short “All Flowers in Time,” it’s apparent that he has grown into a tantalizing filmmaker with a unique vision that might be best described as nightmarish whimsy.
Caouette maps out his feelings in extraordinary visual terms. For that reason, “Walk Away Renée” has enough dazzle to suggest that more refined work lies ahead.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Its outlandish ingredients and messy structure have already sent a few distributors running, but “Renée” might find a good home at the sort of company attracted to offbeat, quirky projects like this one.
criticWIRE grade: B