When it comes to Harmony Korine, it’s complicated. Given the erratic and irreverent nature of the man himself, it’s no surprise the output of his career has been so varied. My critical appraisal of his works runs the whole spectrum. Gummo (1997) and Mister Lonely (2007), located roughly in the middle, are quite solid, if uneven at times. I didn’t care for the irony-soaked vacuousness of Spring Breakers (2012) and the less said about Trash Humpers (2009) is for the better. Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), however, is the one time where all of Korine’s weirdo antics and impulsive improvisation actually coalesced into greatness. It is a series of impressions involving the titular Julien (Ewen Bremner), a young man suffering from a schizo-affective disorder as he interacts with his dysfunctional family and the wider community around him. Through the use of an unconventional aesthetic, it depicts a sensitive portrait of mental illness and the various struggles to find genuine emotional connections at a familial or societal level.
Julien Donkey-Boy is situated as the sixth accredited Dogme 95 film; a somewhat divisive movement founded by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg that dictated strict restrictions in the filmmaking process. While critics were right to point out the ludicrousness of a dogmatic approach to filmmaking, given the humorous certification process and the fact that none of the founders actually made a film that fully adhered to all the precepts, it’s pretty obvious the “vows of chastity” were intended as tongue-in-cheek. Like Vinterberg’s masterful Festen (1998), the achievement of the film lies less in its supposed Dogme 95 “purity”, but rather, its curiosity in exploring the aesthetic potential of low budget filmmaking.
The film’s idiosyncratic visuals was shot by veteran Dogme 95 cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, using camcorder footage that was later transferred to film prints. Combined with the imposed restriction of only using natural and source lights with no other accompanying lighting equipment, the images have a heavy grain quality and alternate between being overexposed or underlit. The refrain from correct white balancing also provides the film with an unusual colour palette of gaudy greyish blue tones and oversaturated tungsten oranges. By conventional principals of filmmaking, this is “bad” cinematography. But there is an unusual beauty to be found in their rawness, and in conjunction with unorthodox editing techniques, Korine shows an enthusiasm for using these visual distortions for expressionistic purposes.
Korine’s aesthetic experimentation is usually the highlight within his films but too often it feels arbitrary and without conceptual underpinning. In Julien Donkey-Boy, the unusual form feels grounded in the film’s attempt to depict the subjective sensory experience of its titular character. Abrupt montage, stop-motion, freeze frames, and superimposed images are some of the devices employed to create a hyper-sensory, fractured, and discordant experience. In his visual decisions, Korine seems to be asking: what exactly is it like to experience the world with a different cognitive condition? What are the sensory experiences? How do they comprehend the world? What are complications in articulation or communication? What is it like to “be” Julien?
But aside from that, there’s also just the pure delight of the some of the startling imagery created through this lo-fi aesthetic. The scene of Julien’s sister (Chloe Sevigny) wandering and singing to herself amongst a field of grass; an image distorted from the oversaturated golden tones creating a sense of heightened reality, is perhaps the most beautiful scene in his filmography. There’s some other surprises encountered too, such as the bizarre and humorous superimposed image of the face of Julien’s father (Werner Herzog) that appears in one scene, or the jerkily animated montage of Julien’s brother (Evan Neumann) crawling up and down the stairs as an exercise routine.
Narratively, the film also succeeds by actually creating an interesting portrait out of Julien and his dysfunctional family. Like a lot of his films, it’s irreverent, disjointed and based more on “moments” as opposed to traditional plot and character structure, but in this instance, Korine’s intuition served him well. He’s definitely a filmmaker who has been guilty in the past of overindulging in scenes of societal outsiders engaging in transgressive acts, and while I’ll concede that a certain affection or kinship with these characters is apparent, there are times when it’s difficult to differentiate it from an exploitative freakshow. Julien Donkey-Boy has its own share of transgressive instances, such as the emotional abuse laid out by the patriarch of the family or the suggestion of an incestuous pregnancy between Julien and his sister, yet there is an underlying empathy in the film that suggests that we should consider rather than gawk.
Each of the family members are given scenes to show them by themselves, alone, lost in their worlds, with their own private passions, thoughts, feelings and inner desires. These scenes are contrasted with events portraying the difficulties encountered when other people don’t understand these personal passions, often peppered with pitch-black humour. Julien is frequently seen rambling to himself in moments of confused frenzy and having imagined conversations with other people. He also shows an interest in expressing the chaos of his inner mind through spoken word poetry, one instance proving disastrous when his father cruelly derides him during a painfully awkward family dinner. Pearl, with her wandering walks singing to herself and harp playing at home, has her music as her private passion, and just like Julien, is subjected to cruel taunts from her father. Chris has his wrestling, an interest he appears invested in and dedicated to, yet also seems self-conscious and privately embarrassed by. The father, the most hostile and antagonistic member of the family, has his own eccentric fixations and desires. He appears to enjoy overmedicating for a type of high, even going as far as to drink some from a shoe; this is Herzog after all. He asks Chris to wear a dress that “mama used to wear” to help alleviate a sense of loneliness. Chris doesn’t oblige. Korine finds the humour in this dysfunction, but also the sadness. Despite his amusement at the bizarre antics, it never feels directed from a place of superiority or condescension.
While the struggle for communication is a frequent motif in the film, Korine does not suggest that it is impossible for this family or for people who suffer from mental illness. An admirable quality of the film is the casting and inclusion of people with various disabilities and showing the camaraderie and joy they find through various communal get-togethers. In a meeting of blind people, an impromptu freestyle rap from a self-proclaimed “Black Albino from Alabama” is a pure delight to watch due to his natural charisma and ability to energise his fellow compatriots. Likewise, a gospel performance at a Black Baptist Church attended by Julien’s family is another moment of communal ecstasy; Julien, who appears both confused and moved cannot compose himself as he claps along to the beat and begins to cry uncontrollably.
Despite his occasional displays of aberrant behaviour, Julien is a sensitive man who is able to deeply empathise with the feelings of others. Perhaps no greater example can be found than the films tragic conclusion. Pearl suffers an accident that causes a miscarriage and must be hospitalised. Julien, in a state of grief and confusion, takes the aborted fetus before it is sent to be disposed of. In a scene that was actually shot on a public bus with hidden cameras, he is seen distraught, cradling and comforting the fetus as if it were a newborn child. The unwitting participants can only pretend to not notice and slyly move away from Ewen Bremner in character as Julien. They have a justifiable wariness and caution from the bizarre and disturbing scene, yet we as an audience can understand where he is coming from. In his tender comforting of the miscarried child, it is not intended as a grotesque and provocative act, rather, it is an expression of love and grief.