Gabe Klinger’s Porto deals with the post-one-night-stand fallout between an American drifter working abroad, Jake (Anton Yelchin), and a forlorn French woman, Mati (Lucie Lucas). Less a city symphony than a muted impressionist painting of urban drifting, the film takes place within the shadowy side streets, modest corner bars, and nondescript 24-hour diners of the eponymous northwest Portuguese city, where Jake is burning time as a manual laborer and flannel-clad somnambulist. Wandering one night, Jake spots Mati and strikes up an exchange, which leads to a charged evening that gets played and replayed throughout the film, each time at slightly greater length and with a different emotional inflection. Stitching these sense memories together are jazz piano-backed montages of a disappointed Jake stumbling around their earlier haunts as though in a Resnais-like time loop.
Porto is about bemusedly roaming in half-light through a foreign city while periodically drifting in and out of recollections of a potent recent relationship gone sour. Shot on 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm celluloid, and often in unforgiving available light, its imagery has a palpable materiality that’s critical to its formal structure: The grainy, boxy smaller gauges are used to depict a frustrated present of botched opportunity, while the 35mm scope photography brings a comparative clarity to scenes of tender recollection. Aspect ratios and time were also crucial in Klinger’s last film, the documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, with which Porto shares a vested interest in the casually profound give and take of two-person conversations.
Klinger’s cutting rhythms, developed with co-editor Géraldine Mangenot, are rooted in patient observation of the physical and vocal nuances of his actors, meaning prolonged pauses between lines of dialogue are occasions to appreciate how Mati hesitatingly lights a cigarette, or the way Jake’s skeletal frame seems perpetually slumped forward in anticipation of something. The pair’s first meeting at an afterhours café, in which Jake musters up the courage to approach Mati at her table, contains only a few lines of dialogue and conjures some of the hushed electricity of a classic Bogart-Bacall encounter, a quality that’s also true of the subsequent, nearly wordless scene, covered in one traveling two-shot as Mati eagerly leads Jake back to her flat.
While these moments subtly evoke Old Hollywood, the sequences in Mati’s sparsely furnished modern apartment echo the blocking and camerawork in Godard’s Contempt (Lucas even resembles Brigitte Bardot), and one moody sojourn at Jake’s fog-shrouded work site recalls the funereal atmosphere of Soviet war films like Ivan’s Childhood and Letter Never Sent. Klinger’s cine-literacy is well known to those familiar with his writing and programming, but what’s special about Porto, especially as a debut narrative feature, is the relative internalization of its influences, which feel secondary to its larger grappling with a timeless emotional enigma: namely, infatuation, and the question of how such a mighty force can also be so fleeting.