In Paris, a young American who works as a Michael Jackson lookalike meets Marilyn Monroe, who invites him to her commune in Scotland, where she lives with Charlie Chaplin and her daughter, Shirley Temple.
A series of hazy 8mm vignettes, accompanied by a soft, lilting voice over, in which girls skulk around schoolyards, spray graffiti, drink, smoke, pose and embrace, evoking the loneliness, confusion and overwhelming wonder of growing up.
"O, mio babbino caro" plays as a woman skates gracefully. In contrast, little is graceful and daddy is not dear in Julien's world. His father listens to blues wearing a gas mask; dad prods, lectures, and derides Julien as well as Julien's brother and pregnant sister, while grandma attends to her dog. Julien is different, schizophrenic. He wears gold teeth. He bowls, sings, worships, and chats with a group of young adults with disabilities. His sister's child is probably his own. He talks on the phone, imagining it's his mother, who died in childbirth years before. He may be a murderer of children. From his point of view (perhaps), the film follows this odd family for a few weeks. Written by
The character of Julien is based on Harmony Korine's schizophrenic uncle, Eddie (brother of his father). During preparation for the film, Korine had Ewen Bremner meet his uncle and later listen to audiotapes of him to gain insight into the role. See more »
Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy, is nothing less than real filmic art. It chronicles a day or so in the life of Julien, a teenage schizophrenic, and the other family members he lives with: his sister, his frustrated and abusive father, played nicely by Werner Herzog, (of all people), his younger brother, and his grandmother.
The effect is like watching Leave it to Beaver on acid--a haunting picture of a family paralyzed by their own dysfunctionality, so pervasive it is that it virtually crushes any hope of what most of us would call a "normal" life. The real tragedy is knowing that we are merely glimpsing a fictional account of what many real families with similar situations have to endure. The film isn't a success solely due to its effectively disturbing chronicle of a mentally ill teen, but rather, HOW it chronicles the life of this character. Korine is a master of using film to communicate story and messages, specifically through the use of editing, cinematography and visual effects. This is amazing, since at only 27, Korine has more visual ownership of the medium than do most directors with twice his experience.
Yet, Korine's movies are not popular. Most people wouldn't have a clue as to what's going on in them. This is because Korine uses visual symbols and other filmic elements to reveal the plot and character development. And he does this masterfully. For example, in one scene, we see the images as if on a videophone, frame-by-frame, with erratic cuts in the action. Yet, the sound flows as normal. Korine uses this technique to symbolize the main character's fragmented view of the world -- a view that is dramatically distorted from our own. This is brilliant filmmaking -- an example of "show, don't tell" yet through use of film form rather than character action.
Indelibly, it is Korine's unconventional film style, of which a good deal looks experimental, yet all of which is handled expertly, that will also keep him at the fringes of the film world, barring him the popularity he deserves. This is too bad since he brings as much to the art of independent film as Scorcese does to the Hollywood film. Yet Korine will never have the accessibility of the other.
In this film, Korine reveals the character of Julien not only through his actions, but via his reactions to those around him and to his environment. This is a hard task for a filmmaker to achieve since those who don't know the particular "reason" for a scene or for its purpose, will be lost. The film demands an aggressive viewer, one who wants to share the boldness of the director's vision, while deciphering it through his or her own knowledge of film conventions and prior knowledge.
Julien Donkey-Boy is not as emotionally powerful as Korine's previous film, Gummo, yet it is just as important in what it has to say about film as a medium of communication, and, about the people who are living at the margins of society.
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