Julien Donkey-Boy

Dir: Harmony Korine, 1999. Starring: Ewen Bremner, Chloe Sevigny, Werner Herzog, Joyce Korine, Evan Neumann. Cult.
Julien Donkey-Boy

Not to downplay this movie, because it’s wonderful, but the prime reason to see it is Werner Herzog, who, if you didn’t already know, is absolutely hilarious. Reason number two is that this is the only American film that is classified as a Dogma film under the Dogme 95 criteria. Whether you think the movement is a pretentious load of bull or not is irrelevant. The requirements, while altered I’m sure, are a welcome change in terms of the crystal-clear hoopla thrills that we’re used to. This film employs an array of interesting techniques and improvisational performances that should not be missed.

The story follows a schizophrenic young-adult named Julien (Ewen Bremner), and his dysfunctional family. His brother Chris (Evan Neumann) is a high-school wrestler who aims to please their domineering father; his sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny) is mousy individual who is pregnant with Julien’s child; and their father is an impatient bully who you find yourself siding with anyways. Oh, and there’s grandma (Joyce Korine), but she’s kind of like a prop. The entire movie is shot with grainy film stock (possibly 16mm), and is presented in a way that resembles a crazy reality TV show. Julien can be seen hanging out with his handicapped friends, mumbling to himself or others on the street, cross-dressing around the house, etc. The most memorable and heart-breaking of his activities are his phone calls to his deceased mother. He sits in one room, while his sister is in another, and they have conversations over the telephone where she pretends to be their mother. Obviously this is not good for his condition, but it also is one of the few moments that allows you to understand that he has good intentions and is simply lonely.

Back to the subject of Herzog. His improve is dead on as he attempts to take on the role of a macho American father who has gone insane. He picks on Julien for the obvious reason that it’s extremely easy. He pushes his son Chris because he seems to be the last hope in terms of a son who can accomplish something he deems worthy. When he fails, he simply states, "You are not a winner." The fact that his daughter is pregnant and hasn’t told anyone who the father is makes her a target for abuse as well. We know it’s Julien’s child through a flashback early in the movie. Pearl is getting an ultrasound and the technician asks her who the father is. She looks puzzled and there is a flashback, though a series of still photographs, where she and Julien are dressed up dancing in a bedroom. Much of the action is focused on Julien's character, but since he seldom leaves the house, the focus often shifts to these other characters. This flow of direction really allows for the viewer to be concerned, or at least curious, about everyone onscreen.

What I like most about the film are the techniques used to execute emotions and moods. I also like the photo stills, out-of-focus shots, and awkward frames that are sprinkled throughout. While Gummo is still my favorite of Korine's films, I'd like to note that Julien Donkey-Boy is perhaps his most ethereal work, and one with a gracious amount of pathos. This isn’t implying that there aren’t any rough moments to get through, but like his other works, one can have a cathartic experience. In short, I think that this, aside from Mister Lonely, might be one of the safer films to watch if you've never seen Korine's work. While this particular movie does have the usual quirks and nuances to be expected from its director, it is also purposefully restricted. With this, Korine gave up something and yet was able to hold onto his own sense of style, ultimately producing something splendid.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Dec 8, 2010 10:36am
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