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
Let's be brutally honest here for a second; if you choose to check out Julien Donkey-Boy after reading this review, I will consider you a brave and ambitious soul. If you like the film after watching it, I will consider you an admirable one. Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy is a difficult film to endure for ninety-nine minutes; a complex and crippling one. It twists your emotions, saddens the soul, and repulses every preconceived notion, or lack thereof, you had entering the film in the first place.
Korine's first picture in 1997 was called Gummo, and it stands as one of the most lurid, controversial pictures of the nineties decade. The film utilized a non-linear narrative, stringing scenes together with little continuity and providing an unblinking look at a scummy town in Ohio that was ravaged by a tornado and never fully recovered. It was a true cinematic wonder, and still remains that way in 2013. Korine followed Gummo up with Julien Donkey-Boy, a film done in the style of "Dogme 95," a filmmaking movement that focused on the naturalism of dialog, story, and plot-progression by using hand-held cameras, source sound, lighting, and props. It also prohibited that directors be credited from their work, so Harmony Korine isn't even known as the official director of this film.
The plot: Julien (Ewen Bremner) is a young, schizophrenic man who lives in his home with his extremely dysfunctional family, consisting of his instigating father (the great German director Werner Herzog), his passive brother Chris (Evan Neumann), and his sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny), who is carrying Julien's child. We see the world through Julien's eyes, as he rarely leaves the screen for more than a minute. We see the unrelenting madness that unfolds in his home, and sometimes, we become submerged so deeply into Julien's baffling, schizophrenic mind that the film begins to become incoherent and blurry. When I say "blurry," I mean that quite literally, as the film was shot on a DV tape, converted to 16mm (already a sketchy transfer), and finally blown up to 35mm, giving the film an extremely grainy and visually washed-out look.
There's something to be said about Ewen Bremner, who is completely terrific here in a beyond difficult role. Bremner was made famous by his role in Trainspotting, and here, he embodies a character unlike anything else currently present in his filmography. This is the kind of role veteran actors fear taking on, and this is the kind of the story veteran directors neuter or make easier to digest for the public. Not Korine; every project he has done thus far has been exercised to almost complete full-force. He's an uncompromising auteur, putting character before plot and impact before publicity to ensure long-term memorability. He's a requirement for cinema.
When I say "uncompromising," take for example the scene where Pearl falls on the ice-rink, with lethal consequences to someone close to her. This scene is polarizing and frightening all the more. It left me with a boiling feeling of sadness, and had such an impact on me that it never left my thoughts for the remainder of the day. Take another scene, for example, when we see how Julien's father shamelessly bullies him by soaking him with the hose and demanding that he "don't shiver." Or even the scene where Julien pretends he's God and Adolf Hitler simultaneously.
I can compare this to Gummo in the regard of shock, but Julien Donkey-Boy is showing something a tiny bit more distant from reality. To elaborate, Gummo is showing a culture and a town that very well could be real, but it isn't directly based off of any specific part of the world. Yet the problems dealt with in that film since as loss of innocence, vandalism, animal abuse, rape, etc are apparent in our society. Schizophrenia is a mental-disease with effects like those portrayed in the film, and therefore, the reality is more distorted as we are seeing it from the title character's perspective. Both pictures are viscerally gripping for the opposite reason; one shows a toxic reality, while the one merges toxic reality with an even more hypnotic and smothering one.
Julien Donkey-Boy is a hard film to get through, and at one-hundred minutes, can be occasionally maddening. We're being bombarded with so much repulsion and depravity that it becomes a bit of an overload. With that said, the overall disjointedness and the grainy aesthetic can be a bit much, too. But all those reasons are the same reason that I liked the film so much. Korine is a force of nature, one who seems to often rebel, test, and manipulate the rules of cinema to fit his own tendencies, regardless of how explicit or inane they may be. I wouldn't have him, or this film, any other way the more I think about it.
Starring: Ewen Bremner, Chloë Sevigny, Werner Herzog, and Evan Neumann. Directed by: Harmony Korine.
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