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Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999)

July 11, 2012

Before seeing Julien Donkey-Boy, my only Dogme95 film had been Vinterberg’s Festen. I liked the film, but I was never truly impressed by the manifesto itself. The same founders never strictly followed all the restrictions, and quickly abandoned the movement. Nonetheless, restrictions are always useful if they led the filmmakers to search for new languages and solutions. Korine’s take on the manifesto is a little gem, visceral and utterly personal. Disliked by most (but it’s common with Korine’s work), the movie is similar yet different from his previous feature, Gummo. The grainy look of the film (shot on video, transferred onto 8mm and then blown up to 35mm) is almost palpable, as if it’s part of the characters, of the ambient. Figures are often out of focus,  thin lines floating in fuzzy white surroundings. Fortunately, Korine doesn’t strictly follow the rules and, for example, uses extradiegetic music, creating mesmerizing scenes, such as the opening and closing ones: blurred ice-skaters, twirling in slow motion, smoothly but jerky at the same time, while opera accompanies the movements.

The acting is mostly improvised, but is supported by great actors such as Ewen Bremner, Chloe Sevigny and a superb Werner Herzog. I personally love Ewen Bremner, and it’s a shame that he’s only known for his role as Spud in Trainspotting (and it’s even more shameful that in the original theatrical play, he brilliantly performed in the main role as Renton, but in the movie this part was given to Ewan McGregor.  Apparently you gotta choose a nice face over talent to sell a movie). Unfortunately, Bremner received few opportunities to show his talent, but his performances in Skin, based on Sarah Kane’s screenplay, or Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Naked are unforgettable. Here, he plays a schizophrenic adolescent, even though he seems the sanest of the bunch, since every character, in Korine’s tradition, is a freak or a lunatic. Herzog’s performance is astounding. If you know a little of the filmmaker’s background you can recognize a lot of references to his life, his works or his passions (he clearly quotes moments from his movie Aguirre, he mentions his love for ski jumping, just to name a few). He almost takes over Bremner character, with his hallucinated monologues, his dances, his patriarchal violence.

These interpretations are supported by all the non professional actors that take part in the film, such as Chrissy, a blind ice-skater girl, both in the movie and in real life, which gives us some of the best scenes and dialogues of the entire movie. The scenes shot in the church or in the school for blind people outweigh, in few minutes, entire movies with similar subjects or atmosphere (Lourdes, just to mention one). The naturalness with which the scenes are shot makes this nonsensical film look normal, only to impress the viewer on another level, by using schizophrenic editing and imaginative use of the mdp.

Korine’s movie is personal on a variety of different levels: inspired by his schizophrenic uncle, shot in his grandma’s house, who’s also present as a character. It’s so personal that it denies the presence of a public, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. This movie could be equally excellent if projected in a empty room, with no one watching it. This was not meant to entertain you.

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