Tarnation, 88 mins, rating TBA, opening in cinemas on 14 July 2005.

Tarnation is a film like none I’ve seen before. It is a work of art: a searing, jagged, heartbreaking masterpiece. It is the first feature-length film by its director and subject, Jonathan Caouette. He made a rough cut of the film at home on a personal computer for an initial cost of $218.32. He did this using the editing software (iMovie) that comes free when you buy an Apple Macintosh computer.

Caouette’s film tells the story of his life, and that of his ex-child-model mother. He uses the fragments of his life, editing together home movies and videos, photos, drawings, clips from favourite movies, TV shows and CDs, tape recordings, answering machine messages, and interviews he videotaped over the years. This is all put together in a seemingly-chaotic way – but with a masterful, if dizzying, use of editing techniques. There’s method in Caouette’s “madness”. He sifts through the detritus of a life, through the endless details that make us what we are, and somehow out of everything comes a compelling picture of the love between a mother and her son.

And this is not just any mother. Beautiful and talented Renée’s early life seemed charmed, but all that changed when she was just 11. She fell from a roof, was paralysed for a time, and when she recovered she continued to suffer from headaches and depression. The “cure” for this (in the 1960s) was shock treatment. Renée had over 200 shock treatments in two years, and her personality changed forever.

Renée married and had a child (Caouette), but the marriage didn’t last and Renée became more and more mentally unstable. She ran away from home, taking her son with her, and tragedy struck again. Her resulting unpredictable behaviour landed her in gaol for a time. Her son was taken from her and placed in a series of foster homes, where he was (he says) abused – tied up and beaten at the age of 4.

Throughout his young life (he’s now 32), Caouette escaped his troubles by retreating into a rich fantasy world. At age 11, we see him acting the role of an abused single mother with a young daughter. It is a precocious performance. We see him in his high school play – a musical version of David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet! We see him move into the world of drugs, gay clubs (for Caouette knows from an early age that he is gay) and underground films. This demi-monde becomes his surrogate family for a while.

The remarkable thing about this film is that although there is a degree of narcissism – Caouette is above all a performer – there’s not a trace of self-pity or finger-pointing. The story is presented matter-of-factly, without even a spoken narrative. Caouette uses large typewritten titles (written in the 3rd person), plus the sound and vision, to tell the tale.

And this is not just an eccentric autobiography, either. Caouette’s story immediately made connections in my head. A mentally-ill woman is detained by the authorities, gaoled and institutionalised: what is to become of her child? Should her child be punished with her? It’s like a combination of the story of Cornelia Rau (the mentally-ill woman who was kept in immigration detention for 10 months), and the plight of the children in detention centres.

One critic has remarked that the film combines elements of two recent documentaries: Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki 2003) and My Architect (Kahn 2003) (both reviewed in these pages in March and October 2004). It is. If you enjoyed those films you are likely to love Tarnation. But Tarnation goes far beyond the other two films, both in style and in emotional intensity.

And the name? “Tarnation” is used in America’s southern states as a euphemism for “Hell”. Out of this personal hell has come a work of art, and a kind of salvation for the small boy who went through it.