Porto ★★★½


Excerpt from my DVD booklet essay:

So how can we understand the fictional relationship at the heart of Porto? Who are Jake and Mati, exactly, and how are we to square the apparent inconsistencies within the three parts that comprise the film? It is clear that director Gabe Klinger and screenwriter Larry Gross have drawn inspiration from many of the great European love / sex / romance stories of the modern cinema, many of which have, not coincidentally, trained their sights on the problem of memory and point of view. What’s more, many of these key works of the European art cinema have focused on brief encounters, one-night trysts, and other random meetings of strangers who reached out to one another in the midst of loneliness and perhaps found a kindred spirit.

One can detect echoes of the work of various canonical directors in Porto’s serendipitous pairing of Jake and Mati – Resnais, Buñuel, and Rohmer, to name but a few. But just as significantly, we can see Porto as participating in a contemporary critique of those notions of amour fou and the instantaneous connection. Klinger’s work has much more in common with films such as Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit, (1982) and more recent films such as Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love (2000), José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia (2007), Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), and Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then (2015).

Like those contemporary masters, Klinger introduces the problem of point of view in order to undermine the stability of either of his protagonists’ version of events. In so doing, he constructs Porto as a battle between two equally compromised subject positions. Jake, for his part, is young, brusque, and intense. He appears to be overinvesting in his sudden coupling with Mati, but it is difficult to tell. That’s because at certain moments, Mati appears to be just as ardent, at least if we can judge from her pillow talk and the all-night conversation she and Jake have.

But Jake claims that Mati has become “a different person” in the morning. Is this the case? It is clear, from one perspective, that Mati wants Jake to leave her alone. And within this interpretive framework – the “Jake” section of Porto – he is a violent stalker, someone who does not respect Mati’s wishes and seems to pose a rather definite threat. On the other hand, in the “Mati” segment, we see Jake and Mati meet in a café and, quite impulsively, Mati picks him up for a one-night stand. She makes mention of the fact that she is not certain she is making the best decision by being so impulsive, but she clearly wants to go with this largely carnal urge.

Later on, we learn that Mati is in a long-term relationship with her anthropology professor Joāo (Paolo Calatré), and as we see in a peek into Mati’s future, there is strife within the relationship. It’s even possible that the fault lines are already in place, partly precipitating Mati’s hookup with Jake. But this is inconclusive. What we do know is that Jake and Mati enjoy a very concentrated, intensely verbal night of continuous sex.

At least this is what Porto leads us to believe. There is no clear reason to take anything we see at face value. But what we do discover over the course of the film is that both Jake and Mati are highly unstable individuals. Mati describes having been “crazy,” and although she does not go into great detail about this period, it is implied that she is given to emotional mania. Jake, meanwhile, is an obsessive young man who conveniently fails to hear information that runs counter to his emotional narrative. He appears shocked when Mati returns home with Joāo, and later, when she tries to break it off with Jake, he actually becomes violent.

At first we might think that each of the first two sections, “Jake” and “Mati,” correspond to the character after whom they are named. But in “Jake” we see Jake through Mati’s eyes (as a threat to her stability, and possibly more), and in “Mati” we see her through Jake’s (as free and impulsive, desirable and unpredictable). In both cases, Klinger provides an unreliable point of view of an equally unreliable character. We are never given a clear perspective on this brief relationship. The third section, “Mati and Jake,” does not provide an objective look at the two lovers from the outside. Instead, it is a confrontation of these two volatile subjects, a scenario comprised of anger and recrimination as well as unfettered desire. Each lover engages with their own skewed perception of the other, and for a brief moment, it appears to work.

As with Certified Copy (a film about a marriage that may never have happened) or In the City of Sylvia (about a misrecognition that recodes a former lover into a common harasser), Porto calls upon the classic tropes of mad passion and doomed romance in order to call them into question. When two deeply damaged people seek solace in one another, the results might not be particularly beautiful, even if they happen to be two beautiful people situated in one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Klinger, a director who knows his film history, aims simultaneously to provoke our tendency to swoon at a love that is fated to be, and to call forth our rational judgment, to recognize how detrimental these romantic myths can be. Jake sums up his collision with Mati by saying, with all sincerity, “it doesn’t feel like a matter of choice.” Porto is a story about the impossibility of love without will.

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