'Porto': Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Porto - Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
A disjointed love story with two appealing stars.

Indie veteran Jim Jarmusch helped to produce this time-fractured romance featuring one of the last performances of Anton Yelchin.

One of the last performances by Anton Yelchin, who was killed in a freak accident earlier this year, is featured in the indie film, Porto, which received its world premiere in the New Directors section at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The film is not a perfect undertaking, but it confirms Yelchin’s unique talent and underscores the sadness of his untimely death. Like some of Yelchin’s earlier movies—his Sundance prize-winner, Like Crazy, and last year’s rom-com, 5 to 7--this is a poignant, small-scale love story centering on two people who achieve an instant connection and then have to face imposing obstacles that may drive them apart.

The title comes from the popular tourist destination in Portugal, and one disappointment of the movie is that it doesn’t have a strong enough sense of place. Director Gabe Klinger wanted to make a movie there because of his admiration for Portuguese cinema, and he enlisted Jim Jarmusch (the director of one of Yelchin’s movies, Only Lovers Left Alive) as executive producer. The result is an arresting, ambitious, not fully satisfying experiment in non-linear storytelling that serves mainly as a showcase for Yelchin and his co-star, French actress Lucie Lucas.

The heart of the film is a brief encounter between Yelchin’s Jake, an American expatriate in Portugal, and Lucas’s Mati, a French woman living there. The film is a bit reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, though it’s far more sexually explicit. And it’s also a bit more muddled in its chronicle of the passionate affair. The film intercuts moments from their time together with earlier and later time periods in which the two of them are on their own. The structure underscores the transience of joy and the haphazard nature of romantic connections.

These themes are always poignant, but the structure sometimes confuses when it should illuminate. Klinger experiments with different visual formats for the flashbacks and flash forwards. He shot on Super 8 and 16 mm for some of these sequences, so the screen size varies.  The affair itself is shot in ravishing widescreen 35 mm that highlights the sensuality of the encounter. The love scenes are frank and uninhibited, but they affect us not because of the skin exposed but because of the skill of the actors. Yelchin in particular captures the intensity of Jake’s yearning for this slightly older woman who upends his life. Lucas is extraordinarily beautiful, and although her thick French accent sometimes makes her hard to understand, she certainly makes a convincing object of desire.

The flash forwards to later moments in the lovers’ lives make us feel that they have lost something precious with the passage of time and the arrival of other responsibilities.  Paulo Calatre has a small part as Mati’s older husband, and veteran French actress Francoise Lebrun (The Mother and the Whore) has a sharply written scene as Mati’s mother. 

Another precursor of this film is the Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney romance, Two for the Road, which also jumbled the time sequence in portraying a love affair over a period of years. Of course that was a much slicker confection, but it was also more emotionally affecting. Porto, made on a far more modest budget, doesn’t always cut as deep as it means to, but the structure and characters intrigue, and Yelchin’s talent heightens the pathos.

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Lucie Lucas, Paulo Calatre, Francoise Lebrun

Director: Gabe Klinger

Screenwriters: Larry Gross, Gabe Klinger

Producers: Rodrigo Areias, Gladys Glover, Sonia Buchman, Gabe Klinger, Todd Remis, Julie R. Snyder, Nicolas de la Mothe

Executive producers: Jim Jarmusch, Stephen T. Skoly

Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield

Production designer: Ricardo Preto

Costume designer: Susana Abreu

Editors: Gabe Klinger, Geraldine Mangenot

No rating, 75 minutes