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By Cindy Widner, Fri., March 14, 2008

Harmony Korine
Harmony Korine
Photo by John Anderson

You Are Not Alone: 'Mister Lonely'

The concept of Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine's first feature in eight years or so, is bizarre enough to excite the cult director's fans: A Michael Jackson and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (played by Diego Luna and Samantha Morton) meet in Paris; she takes him to an impersonator enclave in the Scottish Highlands, where she lives with husband "Charlie Chaplin" and daughter "Shirley Temple," along with Abe Lincoln, Sammy Davis Jr., and the like. Meanwhile, in South America, an order of nuns begins to jump from airplanes without parachutes.

What takes us by surprise is the film's beauty: Its breathtaking opening shot, its gold-lit Paris streets, its lush Scottish countryside, and, most stunning of all, blue-habited nuns flying across a crystalline Panamanian sky. Not, in other words, what we've come to expect from Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy): lo-fi, dark-humored, nonlinear films that dare us to enjoy them. Korine's complex notions of reality and perverse sense of humor are still abundantly evident (Werner Herzog plays a sadistic, drunkard priest, which is pretty much all the proof one needs of that), but the thematic, stylistic, and structural departure is dramatic – even given Korine's long hiatus spent lifeguarding, bricklaying, and hanging around with what he calls "a cult of fishermen" in Peru.

"I felt differently about life," he said in an interview after the film's U.S. premiere at SXSW Friday. "I felt like ... maybe I didn't need to deconstruct things or it didn't need to be quite as much of an assault. I just wanted to go with the images and just build things and create pictures, and I thought the story was enough or the characters were enough."

Korine is understandably reluctant to spell out the themes of innocence, isolation, hope, religion, and race that bubble up through the film – "If I could explain it in words, I wouldn't photograph it," he said – but he does speak to the cruelty that invades even the childlike worlds of his impersonators and nuns: "The movie to me is about dreamers, people who live outside the system, people that kind of create their own sense of reality. I understand those kinds of characters in a very deep way. And I also understand that those are the kind of people that it's easiest to damage, and a lot of it comes from the outside."

It's easy for Mister Lonely's conventional beauty to distract from the fact that its structure is episodic rather than plot-driven, and the nun story never directly connects with the rest of the film – a structure echoed in the impersonators' vaudeville show near the end of the film. "I've always liked minstrels or vaudeville or that kind of performance," said Korine. "In some ways the movies are like that – if a scene comes on or there's an act that comes on ... maybe you don't like it, or maybe you don't get it, but it's okay because it'll be over and another will be on. There's a cumulative effect. Rather than doing me straightforward narratives and telling some stories ... it's more about ambience and mood and emotion and that things are there and then they disappear."

In the end, it might all come down to the nuns. "These were things I'd been dreaming about," said Korine. "I just started thinking about nuns jumping out of airplanes without parachutes and dancing in the sky, riding bicycles, and I thought maybe they're testing their faith. Even though the stories are parallel and they never intersect, I felt like they both spoke to the same things, this idea of faith and hope and magic in the world."

Friday, March 14, 6:30pm, Alamo Ritz
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