The posthumously released projects of recently departed actors can make for discomfiting viewing, not least when the tone of the film is at odds with the viewer’s still-tender feelings regarding their absence. That’s not the case, however, with “Porto,” a sad, shimmering American-abroad love story starring the tragically late Anton Yelchin: In artfully deconstructing a one-night stand with one wistful eye on what was and another on what could have been, Gabe Klinger’s first narrative feature winds up feeling appropriately elegiac in a multitude of ways. Ravishingly shot on location in the eponymous Portuguese coastal city (long deserving of just such a cinematic valentine) in an elegant shuffle of aspect ratios and film stocks, this narratively slender item is unapologetically a mood piece: a film that’s in love with love, in love with cinema, and concerned that neither is built to last.
Yelchin’s name — plus the involvement of Jim Jarmusch as executive producer — should help secure this refined miniature a level of arthouse distribution it might not otherwise receive, as well as a healthy following on specialist, Mubi-style streaming platforms. Still, “Porto’s” exposure is likely to remain at a level befitting its bijou intimacy.
A Brazilian-American academic and former film critic whose 2013 documentary “Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater” was lauded at Venice, Klinger wears his cinephilic passions very much on his sleeve; his fictional debut is a critic’s film in every sense of the term, lushly steeped in reverence for past masters in a manner that less embedded viewers could find precious or even exclusive. Those on the film’s wavelength, however, will delight in identifying and assembling Klinger’s coterie of directorial influences, some given direct tips of the hat (Chantal Akerman, Manoel de Oliveira, and of course Jarmusch himself), while others (from Linklater to Demy to Resnais to Allen) are more intuitively present. Rather than seeming derivative or stifled, “Porto” plays as the warm, reciprocal culmination of a life’s viewing.
Porto itself, in all its patinated, out-of-time beauty, may effectively be the third star of this fractured two-hander, but the film is no gilded travelogue. Switching adroitly between Super 8, 16mm and 35mm, each connoting a slightly different quality of memory, Klinger and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (“Mediterranea”) shoot its down-at-heel cafes and gull-pitted harbors in watery, overcast tones; certain forms and frames seem to bleed at the edges, as if painted directly onto azulejo tile. This dreamy but disconsolate visual finish aptly mirrors the state of mind of protagonist Jake (Yelchin), a rudderless American drifter in a state of self-exile, who has wound up in Porto perhaps because it’s the most beautiful European city that still allows ample time and space for the heartsick. Same goes for Mati (Lucie Lucas, winsome in her English-language debut), a French archaeology student with long-nurtured sorrows of her own.
One damp day, Jake and Mati’s eyes meet across the ravaged site of an archaeological dig; later, they bump into each other in a cafe, initiating an impromptu date that lasts until morning. This brief encounter serves as the skeleton for the screenplay by Klinger and veteran scribe Larry Gross (here claiming his first screen credit since 2009’s “Veronika Decides to Die”), but its bones are disassembled and reassembled three times over a tight, light 76-minute runtime: Told with what appears to be several years of hindsight, first from Jake’s perspective, then Mati’s, then an imperfect fusion of the two, “Porto” each time identifies subtly different connections that were made and missed on that one swooning night.
Some might deem the film’s framework slight, as it zig-zags obsessively across hours and years, but Klinger seems acutely aware of the small romantic gestures and errors on which broken hearts can fixate for a lifetime. Certain banal exchanges are rerun at different points in the looped narrative, as if replayed in a mind desperate for a do-over that will never come. The longer the director and co-editor Geraldine Mangenot sift through the events of the past, the clearer it becomes just how contained and curtailed the story’s inciting relationship was.
Indeed, there’s emotional resonance to many of Klinger’s most elaborate technical choices, beginning with those alternating types of non-digital film. On the one hand, the granular, lived-in texture of the imagery implies a certain endurance of memory; on the other, the deliberate use of increasingly phased-out film formats (in frequent Academy ratio, to boot) is entirely apt in a film concerned with what is impermanent. As with Ed Lachman’s oh-so-finely smudged 16mm lensing of “Carol,” “Porto’s” very beauty is tinged with the threat of evanescence.
Which brings matters, unhappily enough, to Yelchin, whose low-key but soulful turn here is a welcome reminder of what was most delicate and distinctive about him as a nascent leading man: The sparse but particular body language, the mixture of softness and steadfastness in his delivery, the guileless, thoughtful gaze. “Porto” isn’t an unremitting one-man showcase; for a minute or two, in fact, French veteran Francoise Lebrun threatens to poach the entire film in a blithe, burning cameo as Mati’s straight-talking mother. But in a film that doesn’t want for melancholy on its own terms, Yelchin’s presence inevitably complicates its innate sense of sorrow.