Programmed by Virginie Dubois
Sélection - Quinzaine des Réalisateurs - Festival de Cannes 2004
A groundbreaking development in autobiographical documentary, Jonathan Caouette’s cathartic film diary swirls together Super 8 and VHS home movies, answering machine messages, family photographs, and other records of a lifetime. It tells the story of Caouette’s tumultuous childhood, his coming out as gay, and his complex relationship with his schizophrenic mother, a former beauty queen whose life was derailed by the electroshock treatments she received in her youth.
A word from Tënk
Troubling, upsetting, fascinating, psychedelic, staggering, striking, moving, destabilizing… I’m at a loss for words.
Tarnation is a film that hits you like a bus, with an improbable sweetness at its core, punctuated with vivid electroshocks. It’s a film supported by narration that appears on-screen. Facts and years track across the screen in superimposed headlines that land like jackhammers over a vertiginous collection of audiovisual archival footage just as troubling as it is fascinating.
Jonathan Caouette delivers a powerful account of the indelible marks left by a childhood that was robbed, tortured and distorted by the horrors of a dysfunctional and devastating family. He succeeds electrically in conveying the agitation, instability and alienation that can ravage the brain of someone put at the mercy of unspeakable torments on a daily basis. Tarnation is a fully experimental work that gives us a small sense of the profound troubles that stir within Caouette, that allows us to understand how his mind, heart and even his soul were able to winnow out a safe space in which to take refuge and numb himself.
There is the legacy left by DNA already programmed for destruction. There is the collateral damage caused by a lawless entourage. And then there’s the clever cocktail that blends the two. No surprise, then, that the Jonathan Caouettes of this world barricade themselves in parallel universes in order to make it through the odiousness of a stolen childhood.
Tarnation stands at the crossroads of a private journal, a manifesto, a heartfelt cry for help and a photo album. It’s a troubling and upsetting film, and a must-see, if only to better understand these souls left behind by a society overflowing with prejudices and presuppositions about mental illness.
I walked away from this film with one desire: to wrap Jonathan in a hug, to hold him and whisper to him that everything will be OK, even knowing as I do that the devastation runs deep, and it would take more than a lifetime to repair.
Cinephile, first and foremost