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Julien Donkey Boy

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 5 November 1999

  Written and Directed by Harmony Korine 

Starring Ewen Bremner,
Chloë Sevigny, Werner Herzog,
Evan Neumann, Joyce Korine,
Chrissy Kobylak, and Alvin Law

A girlish figure skater glides across the ice, accompanied by a sorrowful Puccini aria. A young man (this is Julien, played by Ewan Bremner, best known in this country as Trainspotting's hapless Spud) runs through snowy woods, his breath coming in gasps. He laughs, hysterical, then assaults his companion with a rock. Drooling and dripping snot from his nose, the young man looms over the camera, as if he has assaulted you with this rock, as the companion -- positioned as you -- lies battered beneath him. You're five minutes into the movie, and already you're feeling exhausted.

Like Harmony Korine's previous movie, Gummo, this one is designed to cajole and trouble you. The twenty-five-year-old filmmaker (who also scripted Kids, directed by Larry Clark) wants to upset your belief that the world makes sense. True to this end, julien donkey-boy will be, for some viewers, a seriously disturbing experience, but it's not nearly so aggressive or nonconformist as it might have been. In fact, for all the film's efforts to challenge conventions like linear narrative or common characterization, it seems decisively mired in one very ordinary plot point; that is, it uses women characters as props and projections for a man's self-discovery.

This isn't to say that the film doesn't make good on several of the director's self-declared objectives, namely, to adhere to the tenets of the “Dogme 95” Brotherhood, the mostly European movement based in a "Vow of Chastity" to reject anything deemed artificial: Dogme artists don't use simulated lighting, soundtrack music or effects, costumes, or props that don't occur "naturally" on a location, and once they've completed their work, they write “Confessions” to the other members of the group, in which they admit the artifices that they have, however unwillingly, committed.

For example, in his Confession for julien donkey-boy, Korine reveals that balloons in one scene were blown up by the actors, but adds that the balloons existed at the scene previous to the film crew's arrival. He also concedes that his girlfriend, Chloe Sevigny (who plays Julien's sister Pearl) is not really pregnant in the film, but wearing a prosthetic belly. In his official Confession, Korine writes, "I tried to make her pregnant myself, but there wasn't enough time... Perhaps it is my fault. Perhaps I am shooting blanks." He signs this Confession, "Your Brother in Arms."

It's easy to think that the Dogme guys -- and so far, they are all guys -- are a bit too zealous about their rules. At the very least, their unusual dedication provokes some questions. What's at stake in adhering so resolutely to these rules? What makes these rules any closer to "reality" than another sort of representation? What statement are the Dogme artists making about film as artistic endeavor, philosophical project, commercial product, or as a means for statement-making? And what do they think they're saying about the world that besets or inspires them?

In julien donkey-boy, the world is oppressive for almost everyone in sight. The schizophrenic Julien lives in Queens, trying to avoid confrontations with his widowed, imperious, usually drunken father (Werner Herzog), who wears a gas mask and drinks cough syrup from his slipper in search of a bizarre "natural high." Angry and frustrated, Dad not only bullies Julien, but also Julien's desperate-to-please, would-be-wrestler brother Chris (Evan Neumann), mostly incoherent grandmother (Joyce Korine, Harmony's own grandmother, who lent her home for shooting and spends much of her on screen time fiddling with a little white poodle), and sister Pearl, who is pregnant with Julien's child, unbeknownst to the rest of the clan. The film essentially chronicles the disintegration of Julien's psyche (which, despite appearances, is relatively intact when he first beats the boy at the film's opening), using Korine's already-trademark techniques: herky-jerky camera moves and cuts, ooky black-and-white and washed-out color sequences, distinctive sound (such as the skritchy phonograph on which Dad repeatedly plays Clarence Ashley's "Coo Coo Bird"), and more or less "found" lighting (some of the more stunning images in this film incorporate organically occurring green and orange tints). The film is shot on digital video, with footage slowed down or variously altered in post-production (a procedure that logically would seem disallowed by Dogme rules).

Such stylizations do achieve a certain startling interiority: even when you're watching characters behave, you feel somehow locked inside their heads. Julien himself doesn't talk much, but his excursions into the city (with walkman turned up loud) and ritual visits to a local black church (where he and his family are the only white folks) are filmed to show his sense of loneliness and constant anxiety, with close-ups on his strained expression, set against backdrops of blurred seas of faces. Julien is granted respite from his awful familial circumstances when he spends time with a blind and disabled support group, where he's struck by a black albino's (Victor Varnado) cleverly self-expressive rap.

Still, it's increasingly clear that Julien has little-to-no capacity for self-articulation or self-knowledge. While he fancies one preteen member of his group, a blind figure skater named Chrissy (Chrissy Kobylak), he tends to watch her from afar. And whatever transpired between Julien and sister Pearl is long since gone in his own mind: at one point, she calls him on the phone, performing as their dead mother, reminding him to brush his teeth. It's a dreadful moment for you to witness, as Julien lights up at the idea that his mother still lives to look after him and Pearl plays a role -- alternately giggling and near tears -- that can only be read as tragic.

julien donkey-boy is never boring to watch. But it is less than inspired in its subject matter. It's disheartening to think that dysfunctional families may be or become a favorite subject for Dogme disciples, given that a previous example of the manifesto, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration (1998), also focuses on another incestuous unit that melts down under a watchful handheld-camera eye. (It's worth noting that both Vinterberg's and Korine's films are shot by the same cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and edited by the same man, Valdis Oskardottir.)

Even more daunting is the manifesto's self-proclaimed mission to "rescue" cinema from its "bourgeois romanticism." It's daunting because, for all its heroic visual and sound practices, and its compelling focus through and around Julien's demented perspective, Korine's film doesn't begin to accomplish such an ambitious goal. Instead, it devolves into melodrama, where Julien reaches a terrible nadir when -- inevitably -- disaster strikes his unborn child. You can see this calamity coming, as they say, a mile away, which, in turn, makes it seem to take forever and, paradoxically, makes the film's innovations dissipate quickly into needless banality.

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