Pain-Laced ‘julien’ Rises From Keen Improv
Harmony Korine’s “julien donkey-boy,” a film of piercing beauty and pain, takes its title from a thin, intense schizophrenic of perhaps 20. In a prologue that reverberates throughout the film Julien (Ewen Bremner) comes upon a little boy playing with some turtles by a pond and abruptly snuffs out his life, burying him in a shallow grave accompanied by prayers.
This sudden, shocking act of violence on the part of an otherwise gentle, though profoundly disturbed man, is never explained, but it’s surely significant that Julien is much taken with the concept that Jesus died for our sins. Quite possibly Julien was so overwhelmed by the child’s innocence that he saw the boy as a perfect candidate for religious sacrifice. Or perhaps he was under the impression that the child was treating--or would treat--the turtles cruelly. Indeed, the terrible act may have been motivated by some or all of the above reasons, and it echoes the opening of Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” filmed by Werner Herzog, who plays Julien’s father.
In a graceful montage Korine introduces Julien’s family, each of its members alone, suggesting right from the start their essential isolation. The Queens row house’s bleak tone is set by Julien’s martinet of a father (Herzog, the erstwhile enfant terrible of the New German Cinema), an immigrant who may or may not be retired but who is suffused with a sense of defeat and longing for his dead wife. He seems to be in denial over Julien’s mental state, regarding him, in anger and contempt, as merely stupid. Of his pregnant daughter Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), he denounces as “a dilettante and a slut” as she plays a harp. He reserves his greatest rage and abuse for his younger son Chris (Evan Neumann), a high school wrestler, in whom he sees his only ray of hope.
Living in her own world and only rarely speaking is the children’s grandmother (Joyce Korine, the filmmaker’s grandmother, whose home serves as the film’s main set). Pearl is very loving of Julien, and sometimes, while talking with him from upstairs, allows him the delusional comfort of believing that he is talking to their mother from heaven--shades of J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey.” Already under severe pressure from their father, Chris is easily exasperated by the overly intense, easily rattled Julien. Julien, however, is sufficiently functional to work as a kindly and conscientious aide at a school for the blind, where he becomes captivated by Chrissy (Chrissy Kobylak), an 11-year-old whose severe visual impairment has not prevented her from becoming an accomplished ice skater.
Having mapped out his film, which progresses steadily to a shattering yet tender denouement, Korine, after easing his actors into character, allowed them to improvise in the belief that once they had arrived at that state they could do no wrong. As a visionary and inspiring director Korine makes this bold, risky approach work, with Bremner in particular giving a portrayal of wrenching conviction (for which he prepared by working four months as an assistant at New York’s Wards Island for the Criminally Insane).
Korine’s method fit right into the principles of filmmaking espoused by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and thus “julien donkey-boy” became the first American film of their Dogma ’95 manifesto intended to reclaim the cinema from what they see as its current state of malaise. As a result, Korine netted the cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and the editor, Valdis Oskarsdottir, from Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” which probes a far wealthier but easily as dysfunctional a family as Julien’s.
Korine, now 25, first came to their attention as the 18-year-old screenwriter of Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995), which he followed with “Gummo” (1997), his group portrait of kids adrift in an impoverished dead-end semirural community in Middle America, which marked his directorial debut.
“julien donkey-boy” was shot in digital video with multiple hand-held cameras, which at once gives it a quality of immediacy in its intimacy and restless camera movement but also a crucial distancing with its grainy, high-contrast imagery. Without its highly expressive jagged, stylized quality, the film, in its raw emotional intensity, might well have been unbearable. So steady is Korine’s gaze, and of such a depth of compassion and understanding, that “julien donkey-boy” acquires a spiritual dimension that allows it ultimately to become an act of redemption.
* MPAA rating: R, for language, some sexuality and disturbing imagery. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations that are far too raw and intense for children.
Ewen Bremner: Julien
Chloe Sevigny: Pearl
Werner Herzog: Father
Evan Neumann: Chris
A Fine Line Films release of an Independent Pictures presentation. Writer-director Harmony Korine. Producers Cary Woods. Co-producers Robin O’Hara and Scott Macaulay. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor Valdis Oskarsdottir. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
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