Harmony Korine burst onto the independent film scene in the late ‘90s as the twentysomething enfant terrible who wrote the screenplay to the controversial “Kids” and went on to direct the purposefully modulated provocations “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy.” Then he seemed to vanish into a cloud of drug rumors, transient living and alleged projects.
It was as if he had come to destroy cinema, and in the process nearly killed himself.
After an eight-year absence, he’s reemerged with a new film, “Mister Lonely,” which last year premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is set to open in New York on Friday and Los Angeles on May 9. Full of quiet grace and spiritual transcendence, “Mister Lonely” seems far removed from the carefully calibrated grotesqueries of Korine’s earlier work.
He is, in many respects, a changed man, if not a more conventional filmmaker. Korine, 35, lives in Nashville, where he grew up, with his wife. In the last decade, he says that he’s worked as a lifeguard and bricklayer, lived through two house fires and spent time in Paris and with a Haitian voodoo tap-dancer in Baton Rouge, La., and also with a cult of fishermen in Peru.
It sounds like some scruffy art-rock rendering of Mark Twain, but are his journeys fact or some allegorical reimagining of years of drug addiction and emotional malaise? “What’s the difference?” he said. “Whether you believe me or whether it’s the truth, what does it matter? Everything’s just a story. It’s all a story.”
Onetime poster boy for New York’s art-fashion-music-film nighttime demimonde, Korine couldn’t help but have a chuckle at finding himself on a recent Sunday at a sun-dappled table poolside at a hotel in Beverly Hills, munching on French fries and gulping coffee.
The setting does seem a far cry from the underworld phantasmagoria he explored in his earlier films -- out-of- control teenagers in “Kids,” Rust Belt glue-sniffers in “Gummo” and the boundaries of mental illness in “Julien Donkey-Boy.”
Taking a different tack, the Paris-set “Mister Lonely” follows a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who is befriended by a woman who dresses as Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton). She invites him to live among a commune of celebrity impersonators in the Scottish Highlands.
In an unconnected parallel story, nuns in Panama discover they can skydive without parachutes and land unharmed.
Korine has referred to the relationship between the two narratives as “poetic punctuation,” and he has no interest in explaining his films. Rather, he prefers the disjunctions and dissonance that come from not knowing, like a punch line with no joke attached, what he has called “a perfect non-sense.”
“Everyone always takes so much time trying to explain things and set things up,” Korine said. “But I like the idea of just feeling things, letting it go through you. I don’t understand why everything has to be explained or why everything has to make sense, or everything has to say something, because it doesn’t.”
It is easy, though, to read “Mister Lonely” as a symbolic autobiography of Korine’s lost years and his struggle to rebuild himself with a healthier identity and self-image.
“I try not to get into so much detail,” he said of his time away from filmmaking. “A lot of it’s kind of blurry anyway. Obviously there’s things I’m not really going to talk about, but for the most part in those years it wasn’t much more than I had a desire to just leave, to turn my back on everything and lead a different kind of life.
“I enjoyed narcotics, but that was nothing more than the fact I just liked slowing down time,” he continued. “At that point in my life, with so much going on around me, it was nice to be able to slow down the voices and the noise. But there were a lot of other things around it.”
Korine’s father, Sol Korine, is a documentary filmmaker who once chronicled the Deep South, following moonshiners and folk musicians in projects made for PBS. (Sol Korine also worked on “Mister Lonely,” as did Harmony Korine’s mother, brother and wife.)
Harmony Korine recalled with delight how, following his father on trips as a boy, he met goldfish-swallowers and fire-breathers and spent summers traveling with carnivals and circuses. The impressions went deep, informing the very root of his own storytelling.
“There was an energy,” Korine recalled, “a chaos and a strangeness that I understood innately; it felt like I was home. And in some ways everything I do now is to try to get back to that sort of feeling. I always liked that part of America the most, that crazy America where things are seething, everything is incongruous, it seems anything can happen.
“There’s magic under that tent.”