It is a fact, every time I think I have made some huge stride in understanding my place on earth and the meaning of my existence, I end up watching a Harmony Korine movie and everything I took for granted or valued becomes completely arbitrary and irrelevant in the face of artistic expression at its finest. Some time ago a gave heavy praise to Korine's most recent experimental work Trash Humpers, although I flailed at the task of conceptualizing its brilliance and cinematic importance with words, because to be honest it is about the most indescribable thing on Earth. Korine's earlier work Julien Donkey-Boy follows more in lines with this seminal film Gummo, while also adhering, for the most part, to the insanely strict rules of Dogme 95, a film style influenced heavily by minimalism and cinematic distancing. By no means narratively linear, Julien Donkey-Boy focuses on the world of a schizophrenic boy and in doing so manages to provide viewers with a narrative and visual composition indicative of an individual suffering from such experiences, of course this is the manner and method familiar to the controversial young artist, yet it manages to serve for the inner convictions of the title character. Unlike many of Korine's other works both in and out of the film medium, Julien Donkey-Boy seems quite reverent to notions of religion and exudes a particular celebration of those with severe physical and mental disabilities. Taking digital camera work and then transferring it to 8mm only to blow it up to a larger frame size, the grainy quality of every shot in the film creates a serenity and surreal composition that allows for a viewer to freeze at any point in the film and become witness to a piece of still artwork and effort I have only seen happen one other time in Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, which, by no coincidence, is one of Korine's favorite films. Finally, if there is any one doubting the validity of this surprisingly humane offering, it goes without saying that the inclusion of Werner Herzog in the cast should all but secure its brilliance...seriously his scenes are magnificently absurd, and at times poetically perfected.
Julien Donkey-Boy follows the forays through a few days in the life of Julien ( Ewen Bremmer) a highly schizophrenic young man who works as a aid to blind youth in his community. Despite clearly taking great pride in his work he is often the victim of severe verbal attacks and points of degradation by his irate German-American father, played masterfully by Werner Herzog. Simultaneously, viewers are provided with the desultory acts and engagements of a pregnant young girl named Pearl (Chloe Sevigny) who is assumedly the sister of Julien. Both Julien and Pearl, with no particular purpose engage with various groups in their community, whether it be an overly optimistic drummer with no arms, or a exceptionally garrulous employee at a thrift store. Throughout their experiences is the intercutting of a hyper-expanded image of a young girl ice skater spinning to "O Mio Babbino Caro," perhaps one of the most used opera pieces in cinema, here of course with a bit of diagetic irony, as to adhere to the rules of Dogme 95. It is revealed that at some point prior to the narrative Julien's mother has died, affirmed when his father attempts to pay him money to dance with him wearing his deceased wife's dress. Perhaps the most centered moment of the film occurs when Julien believes he is talking with his mother on the phone, even though viewers are quite aware that it is Pearl on the other end. The remainder of the film is a series of fleeting moments, ones involving games of bowling, stretching for wrestling and a surprisingly intense scene at a predominantly African-American church. Yet when Pearl suffers from a slip on the ice while skating, her miscarriage completely regrounds the films closing moments into something very real, very tragic and a jarring reminder that the world of a person with mental issues is not to be taken frivolously.
This earnest study of a person with a severe mental disorder is not to be undervalued, certainly not in the hands of Harmony Korine, whose films often involve characters with real life disorders, as is the case of little persons in Gummo, or a fictional study of person's with dissociative identity disorder. Hell anybody who has seen an interview with Korine will often find themselves wondering if he does not suffer from some issues himself, particularly his inspired monologue on playground in the documentary Beautiful Losers. Yet, Julien Donkey-Boy is starkly different from the other films in Korine's oeuvre, in some much as it seems to earnestly attempt to recreate the life and issues of suffering from schizophrenia, whether it be dealing with an overbearing and frustrated parent, or facing ridicule from a community that does not obtain the understanding or care to learn to cope with a person with mental challenges. Furthermore, in a manner that is as uniquely meta, as it is "Korinesque" he causes viewers to also take note of what a schizophrenic person might experience via visual and aural editing that is often repetitive and always jarring, especially during the scene following the church visit, as well as the drawn out scene involving a smoking performance artist, which has moved quite high into my list of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in film. Ultimately, Korine takes measures to make a surreal work that is visually alluring, however, it is always his intent to provoke and often disturb and Julien Donkey-Boy is absolutely no exception, although, it is hard to condemn Julien for his actions in the closing scenes, unlike those on the bus with him, we know well of his past experiences which explain his seemingly grotesque actions and to be fair, would another individual not act similarly given the same set of obstacles?
Key Scene: The church scene would be common place in many other films, but in the hands of Korine, especially given his reputation, it is transcendent cinema at its fullest.
You should own a copy of this movie, it is cooler and far more important than ninety percent of the films you already own. I promise you of that fact.