Reviewed by: Gary Duncan

"A nasty, shoddy, exploitative piece of self-promotion that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth."

This documentary from first-time filmmaker Jonathan Caouette is supposed to be a serious account of his mother's descent into mental illness. Maybe that was the pitch. What we get, over 88 painful minutes, is a son's betrayal of his mother, a nasty, shoddy, exploitative piece of self-promotion that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Caouette's mother, Renee Leblanc, fell off the roof of her parents' house in Texas when she was 12 years old. She was paralysed for six months and her parents, Adolph and Rosemary, admitted her to a local clinic for electric shock treatment, triggering a downward cycle that led to her slowly losing touch with reality. Along the way she married, split up, had Jonathan, was raped, did time and lost her cover-girl good looks. As if that weren't enough, she was also sexually abused by her parents.

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It's a lifetime of misery, but it has the makings of a compelling, if disturbing, movie - one woman's story of abuse by her parents, by the mental health authorities and by just about everyone she came into contact with.

From the opening few scenes, however, it's apparent that this is very much Caouette's film. For a movie that's supposed to be about his mother, we see an awful lot of Jonathan: Jonathan in bed with his boyfriend; Jonathan crying into the phone; Jonathan and his buddies; Jonathan in close-up; Jonathan hamming it up in an old home movie; Jonathan crying his eyes out; Jonathan on stage in high school in an excruciating musical version of Blue Velvet, featuring the songs of Marianne Faithful.

Jonathan, you soon realise, has an ego the size of the Lone Star state. Perhaps, I'm being too hard on him. His story is every bit as depressing as Renee's. He was abused by foster parents when he was four and he was there when Renee was raped. Living with a schizophrenic, psychotic mother must have left an indelible mark on him.

Just when you begin to feel sorry for him, he goes and shoots himself in the foot. He asks Renee to talk about her accident and her first visit to the institution. It's a delicate subject and Renee is understandably reluctant to discuss it, but Caouette, ever-present camera in hand, harangues her and whines about his own feelings.

"We can talk, Jonathan, but we don't need it on film," Renee says, walking off.

Perfectly sensible, in my opinion, but Caouette huffs and puffs like he's the one who has been wronged. His grandparents are subjected to the same interrogation, but at least they do something about it - Adolph calls 911.

What really jars, however, is Caouette's calculated playing to camera. He finds Renee asleep on the sofa and kneels down beside her, the dutiful son watching over his stricken mother. Conveniently, the camera just happens to be there to catch the moment. He keeps reminding us, with quivering lip and watery eye, how much he loves his mother, but this doesn't stop him filming a lengthy sequence in which a childlike, gibbering Renee plays with a pumpkin. She's clearly high as a kite and in desperate need of medication, but Caouette keeps on filming. It's deeply upsetting, like watching a wounded animal, and you wish he'd just stop.

Tarnation was shot on iMovies at a cost of £125. Caouette makes good use of his limited resources, juxtaposing home movies, family photos, answerphone messages and talking heads to give the film a rawness that's in keeping with its emotive subject matter. He over-eggs it at times, however, and a less flashy, more conventional, narrative would have worked better, even if it wouldn't have saved this exercise in self-promotion from Caouette's inflated ego.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2005
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One man's ultra-personal documentary about growing up with a schizophrenic mum.
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Read more Tarnation reviews:

Nick Jones *****
John Gallagher ***1/2

Director: Jonathan Caouette

Writer: Jonathan Caouette

Starring: Jonathan Caouette, Renee Leblanc, Adolph Davis, Rosemary Davis, David Sanin Paz

Year: 2003

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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