Gabe Klinger’s Porto is a prime example of a seemingly romantic film that is insidiously misogynistic which uses multiple film stocks as an aesthetic gimmick. The film premiered at the San Sebastián Film Festival.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that sexism is a problem bigger than most of us could even imagine. Between allegations made against Woody Allen, Nate Parker’s history, and, on the other side of the camera, Johnny Depp’s career being seemingly undisturbed by accusations of physical abuse, Hollywood still has a lot of progress to make when it comes to respecting women.
But it would be a mistake to use these serious accusations as excuses for leniency towards less overtly harmful forms of misogyny in our film culture. Misogyny is not something practiced by a few evil men who perpetrate violence against women. Rather, these few more obviously sexist men are enabled by a culture that has so far been almost completely complacent about dismantling ingrained misogynistic attitudes. Critiquing that dominant culture is as much of a step forward towards equality as bringing these “evil” men to justice. And when the latter isn’t even happening, it is arguably all we have left.Sexism isn’t something we can cast aside in favour of focusing on more positive aspects of a certain work or filmmaker.Click To Tweet
Sexism isn’t something we can cast aside in favour of focusing on more positive aspects of a certain work or filmmaker. Critics have made much of the fact that Porto — Gabe Klinger’s second feature after his documentary, Double Play — was not just shot entirely on film, but on three different types of stock (8mm, 16mm, and 35mm). This is pure catnip to 90% of (male) film critics: people who almost never pay for their tickets and refuse to acknowledge that projecting film is inherently more expensive and more difficult for cinemas than screening from DCPs (digital copies).
Rather than perceiving celluloid as the original, pure medium of Cinema, and digital as its evil alter-ego, it is time to stop denying innovation and its promises. Each medium simply offers different ways to shoot films and comes with its own advantages and drawbacks. Because film is the more difficult medium to access and project, one must have a better reason than regressive nostalgia to shoot on celluloid in 2016.Rather than perceiving celluloid as the original, pure medium of Cinema, and digital as its evil alter-ego, it is time to stop denying innovation and its promises. Click To Tweet
Initially, Klinger’s Porto seems to have one. Following the time before, during, and after a short and passionate romance between Jake (Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas), the film’s grain and the sense of texture it creates underline the sensuality of the story. Each format corresponds to one time period. 35mm is used for the shortest moment in the lovers’ story, one which both people remember with the most detail and which takes the most screen-time — their steamy one night stand. The 16mm covers the few days surrounding that night, whilst the 8mm — the blurriest of the three formats — is reserved for the present, a time in which Jake is more or less absent, lost in his memories of that night.
This is all fine, and actually does sound on paper like an interesting use of a complex format. Yet that formal fetishism quickly turns into a distraction when the story of this intense love affair reveals itself to be a blatant male fantasy that, uncomfortably, fails to perceive itself as such. Yet the generally respectful critical discourse around this film either failed to notice or chose to ignore that aspect, instead unanimously praising the film for its formal tics and homages to European Art House Cinema. The film is produced by Jim Jarmusch, heavily references the Nouvelle Vague, and ends with a credit of thanks to Theo Angelopoulos and Chantal Akerman. But to claim Porto has anything more than a superficial connection to any of those reference points is just another form of wish-fulfillment.The film’s grain and the sense of texture it creates underline the sensuality of the story.Click To Tweet
We open in the present day with Jake, old and alone in Porto, clearly heartbroken. When we go back in time and are introduced to Mati, it soon becomes clear that what, for Jake, was love at first sight, was, for her, only a regrettable mistake. For a short while, the film does seem to criticise both of them: Mati for being too careless and Jake too intense.
In those early moments, Porto hints at a promising deconstruction of what it is to “fall in love at first sight”, representing it as a mutually-fulfilling intersection of different, ultimately selfish expectations and fantasies. Unfortunately, the film’s editing technique — cutting from one character’s perspective to another — is more confusing than it is enlightening and disturbs this critical distance initially promised. Despite brief interruptions, we invariably return to align with Jake’s perspective.
Mati’s terrible problem, we are told, is her promiscuity. She loves sex and being desirable. She uses her undeniable charms to get what she desires. As if this queasy perspective on sexually confident women weren’t bad enough, the film also has the hypocrisy to clear itself of all objections by having Mati explicitly criticise herself. Like Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State (2004), Mati repeatedly self-identifies as “a bit crazy”. It goes without saying that Mati’s shortcomings are given much more screen time than Jake’s: the film rarely objects to his possessive and disrespectful behaviour. Only by a stretch of the imagination can one imagine the sequences of the man, now old, living alone, still in Porto, and still dreaming of Mati, as a criticism of him.This sympathetic portrayal of Our Hero becomes harder to sustain each time the film returns to present-day Jake. Click To Tweet
But this sympathetic portrayal of Our Hero becomes harder to sustain each time the film returns to present-day Jake. In the flashback sequences, the film proves over and over that it does not perceive this man’s angry and desperate sense of entitlement over a one-night stand as totally pathetic, harmful, or reprehensible. Not only does Porto work to demonise Mati’s perfectly normal behaviour, it also aims to justify and romanticise Jake’s behaviour throughout.
Like Gaspar Noé’s far more knowing and intelligent Love (2015), the film opens and closes on its male hero, with flashbacks in between designed to explain why he is now this lonely old man. This editing strategy is pushed to the worst extreme in what might be the clearest example of the film’s complacency: a scene showing Jake hitting Mati while violently trying to get hold of her outside her apartment is directly followed by the sequence of that fateful night. Porto clearly attempts to justify that man’s violence by his declarations of love and their intense lovemaking the night before.The pivotal sex scene is the most shamelessly cliched male fantasy put to glorious 35mm celluloid in recent years.Click To Tweet
The pivotal sex scene is the most shamelessly cliched male fantasy put to glorious 35mm celluloid in recent years. A man meets a beautiful French woman, and she desires him. Justice for once! He doesn’t even have to do anything. She brings him back to her apartment. This scenario in itself isn’t, of course, implausible, but it quickly becomes so as this woman also happens to have the best sex of her life that night, with that lucky stranger. It’s a great process of disavowal, where it turns out that she — the woman who offers herself to this man — is in fact the lucky one, not him. That she would dare to deny that and reject Jake later is just not fair. After her beautiful body has been shown from all conceivable angles (though Yelchin’s remains virtually invisible), Mati says, “I came so fast… like a guy.” Equality of the sexes at last.
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