Directed by Harmony Korine. Starring Ewen Bremner, Chloë Sevigny, Werner Herzog, Evan Neumann, Joyce Korine, Chrissy Kobylak. (1999, R, 94 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Sat., Dec. 11, 1999
Julien may be a donkey-boy but it's Harmony Korine, this film's director, who is a horse's ass. A talented one, to be sure, but nevertheless a beast that seems not fully tethered or reined in. Korine's star has risen on the basis of his distinctive brand of abrasive cinema. He wrote the notorious screenplay for Larry Clark's Kids and then went on to write and direct Gummo, the affectless drama about cat-killing kids in Ohio. Now, with julien donkey-boy, Korine has moved on to the fictional story of a schizophrenic. Images and fragments from Julien's life have been filmed with hand-held digital video cameras and then tossed on the screen in a haphazard-seeming fashion. The uncanny result is that we often do not know if what we see happening is “real” or merely the figments of Julien's schizophrenic imagination. It's an unsettling effect, but one that seems almost more the result of the director's instinctive impulses than a thought-out methodology. Korine is in good company in this strategy. julien donkey-boy has been certified as the first American Dogme '95 film. This, you will recall, is the Danish-born movement championed by Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), in which the technological clutter of filmmaking is reduced to a reductive set of laws meant to combat the artifices that have come to be associated with “quality” filmmaking. Dogme '95 insists on hand-held camerawork, natural lighting and locations, no external props, and so on. On the film's Web site, Korine issues apologies for such things as having purchased cranberries to use as a prop and for the faked pregnancy of the female lead Pearl (Sevigny, Korine's star and real-life girlfriend, whom he claims he would have tried to impregnate if only the pre-production time had been longer). Sevigny is one of the saving graces of this movie, a calm beacon in an otherwise mad universe. Julien is played by Trainspotting's Ewan Bremner, whose experience playing the synaptically challenged Spud in that movie provided him with good experience for his role as this film's “donkey-boy.” The German film director Werner Herzog, another bad boy of cinema, plays the brutish father in this story, creating a portrait as intriguing as it is off-putting. And that's the heart of julien donkey-boy: It is in alternate measures touchingly human and disturbingly repellent. Korine is definitely a filmmaker to watch. His desire to color outside the lines has led to some interesting experimentation. When he figures out what it is he wants to say, he may even become an artist.