From her early teens, Renee Leblanc received electroshock therapy following an accident where she fell off a roof. After her son Jonathan Caouette smoked angel dust when he was 12, he was diagnosed with depersonalisation disorder. They are a good pair, inextricably linked by genetics and by an unusual way of viewing the world.
I just want to have these two films be this definitive representation of people with psychiatric problems
While Leblanc has long suffered with acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder – she was in over 100 psychiatric facilities by the age of 34 – Caouette made his first biographical film, 2003's Tarnation, to give his own condition filmic form. Drawing on the extensive footage he had shot from an early age, he told his chaotic story through his mother and his grandparents, who raised him in Houston, Texas, and he included his incredibly tolerant and loving boyfriend, with whom he resides in New York.
After making a second film, the 2009 documentary about the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival, Caouette now turns the focus more towards his mother and her problems coping with the American medical system, in Walk Away Renee. In part, he made the film because of the unused footage he had left over from Tarnation, but also because of his desire to record what has happened since, most notably his battle to have Renee prescribed with lithium, the only thing that stabilises her. Doctors insist it can be lethal, but the film shows Renee functioning well on lithium, and disastrously without it.
“I just want to have these two films be this definitive representation of people with psychiatric problems and hopefully have audiences empathise with people like this because there is still such a taboo,” says Caouette. “People love to compare people with psychiatric issues to the nearest drug addict – there is so much judgment and so much negativity around it. What people don't often realise is that these people are suffering.”
The last decade has not been easy for the 39-year-old who had been a sensation in 2004's Sundance and Cannes festivals for creating the visually innovative Tarnation for $217.32 using consumer-grade iMovie software on his Apple computer. (The rights for the film's music ended up costing $100,000.) Not the most uplifting of films, Tarnation was championed by Gus van Sant (Good Will Hunting) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) so making a follow-up, especially with similar material, was always going to be a challenge.
To provide a less subjective point of view, he filmed with a small professional crew over two and a half months, planning and even re-staging some scenes. He told the story within a road movie format, editing back to various earlier stages of his life as he drove his mother from Houston to New York City for a brief stint at his home before re-locating her to a facility in Upstate New York.
“The irony of this film versus that film is that having made Tarnation, the universe was sort of like, 'Okay, you exploited your family, you exploited yourself, now you really have to pay for it.' And I did in some ways because circumstances came together which pigeonholed me into the position of this perpetual caretaker for about seven years. A lot of that fairly recently has dissipated so I am finally in a place where I can get back to work because I was literally taking care of my grandfather and my mother and my son in our apartment in New York. I am an advocate for not wanting to see people being institutionalised on any level, whether it's in a convalescent centre or an assisted living place or a psyche hospital, and I was trying to save them.”
Ultimately, he says, Walk Away Renee is less frenetic than Tarnation.
“I wanted to slow the speed down a bit while simultaneously paying homage to Tarnation by going back to devices with text on screen and the music to emotionally get you through it,” Caouette says. As for the title, while he says it refers to his favourite 1966 song by The Left Banke, it's also about where Rene
e is now. “It's about her walking away as much as she can, of being herself and having that be okay.”
Has Renée seen the film? “She's seen both films and loves them. She loves that there's a platform to get her story out there. We both have always been advocates of wanting to get her story out there.”
The film also includes Caouette's teenage son, Josh now 16, the product of a brief hetero fling. Will he be a filmmaker?
“I think he is going to be a great musician,” Caouette says proudly. “He is already playing guitar like crazy and he can play things very quickly by ear. He is playing Nick Drake music and Led Zeppelin and unplugged versions of Cocteau Twins songs. He is a cool kid.”
Caouette, who was able to make Walk Away Renee with the help of friends and supporters including his French producers Gérard Lacroix and Gérard Pont (of Morgane Productions) and clothing magnate Agnès B, is ready for a new approach in his filmmaking. His favourite movie, he says, is Steven Soderbergh's Bubble, which was made with non-professional actors and no script.
“Bubble really exemplifies the kind of universe I would love to capture, the kind of territory I would like to explore. A lot of the early movies by Lars von Trier still always inspire me.”
Still, we would hate for Caouette to completely pare down his approach and dispense with his colourful dioramas.
“Well, it would be pared down but it would probably be juxtaposed with a lot of music and I don't know if it would be text or not,” he explains. “In the post-YouTube age, it's hard to get away with what I did before, because now everybody is making these little montages with text. We'll see.”
Walk Away Renée screens on Tuesday 14 May, 6:30pm, ACMI Cinemas Melbourne for The Human Rights and Arts Film Festival. Visit the ACMI website for more information.