**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Ewen Bremner, Chloe Sevigny, Werner Herzog, Evan Neumann
written and directed by Harmony Korine
by Walter Chaw Julien Bishop (Ewen Bremner, of Trainspotting) is schizophrenic, a stream-of-consciousness construct biding his time shambling along city streets, riding public transportation, and volunteering at a school for the blind. Aggressively disoriented and a sower of discomfort, Julien is not only a twisted Christ figure at the center of this most religious of Harmony Korine's pictures, but a clear manifestation of Korine's filmmaking philosophy.
The first American effort to be granted "Dogme95" status by a brotherhood of Dutch filmmakers (Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring) dedicated to rescuing motion pictures from the realms of artifice, Korine's julien donkey-boy is a grotesquely beautiful piece about family relationships. Although his movie adheres to Dogme95's demands of no special lighting, no props not found at the site of filming, handheld camerawork, and an avoidance of recognizable genre, the obvious manipulation of images in post-production seems to betray the theoretical purity of the group's mission statement. The argument could be made, however, that Korine's rebellion against a few of the tenets of Dogme95 is, in itself, an unspoken tenet of Dogme95. In creating a movement that combats conformity, it's a tricky thing to avoid the creation of another conformity.
Yet it is a very nod to a more conventional plot resolution and a focus on the dynamics of one disintegrating household that hobbles julien donkey-boy. In dissecting the relational dynamics and madness of a dysfunctional family, Korine pares his vision of the beauty in unadorned truth down to a shockingly average tribute to a redemptive humanity in even the most disturbed of individuals and situations. Perhaps an explanation for julien donkey-boy's unusually compassionate stance towards its protagonist is the character's basis in Korine's own schizophrenic uncle.
The film follows a patriarchy. The father is driven mad by the twin gorgons of grief for a dead wife and a frustrated desire to achieve vicariously through one son who is mad (Julien) and another, Chris (Evan Neumann), who is a failed amateur wrestler. The sister, Pearl (Chloe Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry), is seven months pregnant with Julien's baby, although, with Julien's decomposing reality, Pearl appears to be the only one in on the secret.
Harmony Korine already betrays visual tendencies and favored metaphors in julien donkey-boy, only his second film: a bathtub scene, which again serves as an ironic baptism; a preoccupation with brothers; and a fascination with the absurdist symbolism of wrestling with inanimate objects. More interestingly, Korine appears to consciously fiddle with themes embedded in John Keats's melancholic Romanticism, first with Gummo and "Ode to a Grecian Urn"'s oft-quoted coda on "beauty," now with julien donkey-boy and its image of Ruth in a field of "alien corn" from "Ode to a Nightingale" (recalling that in Greek mythology a nightingale sings only the truth).
Consider an early scene from julien in which Pearl wanders in a field of wheat while singing a child's hymn compared to this passage from Keats's poem:
The voice I hear this passing night
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
Harmony Korine joins Keats's use of "song" in the telling of Biblical Ruth's sanctuary in a foreign and hostile land (Ruth 2:2) with Pearl's desire for sanctuary within her clan that has become, through consequence or congenital madness, a foreign and hostile place. Puccini's "O Mio Babino Caro" aria from Gianni Schicci, a plaintive appeal for the acceptance of a lover, finds itself scattered throughout julien donkey-boy to further underscore these themes of alienation, sexuality, and a frustrated desire for familial harmony. It is an interesting aside to note that Puccini is at the fore of the "verisimo" movement in opera, one that had a similar set of covenants as Dogme95's in its aim to portray characters in familiar situations acting upon the immediate impulse of their emotions.
Legendary German New Wave director (and idol of Korine's) Werner Herzog plays Julien's draconian father in a performance that appears to be something of a simultaneous evocation of Herzog's reputation as a rude and difficult director and his recurring cinematic portrayal of people in positions of power as insane. His character is given the best and most revealing lines and moments of the film, most of them dealing with the inaccuracy of perception ("men don't shiver like that"), the skewing of perception (through drugs and the asphyxiation high of wearing a gas mask), and the choking restriction of conventional guidelines ("that's not a poem; it doesn't even rhyme"). It is an extraordinary and twisted performance that recalls Kinski's turn in Herzog's own Fitzcarraldo, a film that, like julien donkey-boy, has as its main subtext a feverish meditation on madness and the passion of music.
Take note of the way Korine uses music in julien donkey-boy to either function as the counterpoint for a scene of attempted emotional connection, or, by their lyrics, as a means of bestowing a false sense of kinship. Julien's bathtub crooning of "Frere Jacques" ("brother John") is, after all, not so far removed from a Baptist preacher's sermon in the church at which Julien's family worships--pontificating in the rhetorical brotherhood bestowed by a communal washing in the blood of Christ. Sentiments of unity are made hollow first by Julien's clear disassociation, then by the visual alarm of Julien's Aryan family in an entirely African-American congregation.
Korine's vision of dance follows in step with this chasm between sign and signifier. A series of surreally presented snapshots of Julien and Pearl waltzing is clearly meant to suggest the skewed sexuality of incest and the taboo of their unborn child. A scene involving an armless drummer and his black mistress reiterates this Tod Browning-esque unnatural pairing, while a disturbing sequence wherein Julien drag-wrestles his brother illuminates Korine's absurdist vision of the human struggle for identity and, perhaps, for the approval of the father (literally and theologically). This Oedipal perversion (the use of sexuality to please the father rather than usurp him) is echoed in a brief shot of a masturbating nun, and a longer sequence in which Herzog's character offers young Chris ten dollars to wear his dead wife's wedding dress and to dance with him.
At the root of it, then, Korine's film is clearly a work interested in dissecting disintegrating and illusory familial bonds through ironic and grotesque juxtapositions of song, religion, and dance. Had Korine managed somehow to expand the scope of julien donkey-boy into a wider statement of the human condition, as he accomplished with Gummo, its symbolic and imagistic richness would instantly elevate it into the upper-echelon of modern avant-garde cinema. As it is, the film is, if possible, too insular. A movie of peccadilloes which reminds at times the claustrophobic madness of Darren Aronofsky's Pi and at others of Herzog's late-Seventies fever-dream productions. Its final smothering shots of Julien under a blanket and nursing his infant like some bizarre re-imagining of the tortured vampire Kinski played in Herzog's Nosferatu, deals the film its final, crippling blow of conventionalism and sentimentality by presenting an (unintentional?) uplift/redemption.
The instinct to nurture in the most trying of situations is a message covertly shared by Korine's script for Kids and his auteur debut, Gummo, but this is the first time Korine's message of universality has felt manufactured and telegraphed. julien donkey-boy represents a step backwards for Harmony Korine. It's visually audacious--at times even gorgeous--but it lacks the visceral impact to which Korine clearly aspires. It features a pair of exceptional performances by Werner Herzog and Ewen Bremner, and provides some enduringly discomfiting images (especially a scene in which the father hoses down Chris in an effort to make him "a man," and another involving an ill-fated ice-skating trip), yet julien donkey-boy commits the one crime that a film this courageously anachronistic and occasionally brilliant can ill-afford to commit: "familiarity."
The New Line DVD release of julien donkey-boy is a model of its kind. The video transfer of Korine's scuffed digital camera footage is flawless and consistent, while the Surround 2.0 sound mix manages to pick up whispered lines of dialogue, overlapping sound mosaics, and raucous party sequences with equal clarity and richness. Although I miss a director's commentary from Korine, included on the DVD is a fifteen minute production documentary called "The Confession of Julien Donkey-boy", which features Korine, Sevigny, and Bremner in interviews along with brief but fascinating footage of the aforementioned Uncle Eddy, the basis for Julien.
Two supplemental extended scenes lend further depth to Julien's illness. The first is a therapy sequence in which Julien discusses the film's main themes of religion and kinship that I suspect Korine thought too revealing of his film's intentions, and the second is a less interesting documentation of a pool party for the blind. Neither scene has been treated with the post-production tricks Korine uses on the rest of the film and the resultant images are clearly the product of a digital video transfer resembling a slightly degraded television broadcast.
A theatrical trailer and cast and crew menu round out the disc. Originally published: April 3, 2001.