director Harmony Korine
As I’ve noted before in writing about films of Harmony Korine, I’d kind of vowed not to watch any more of his movies after seeing his Gummo (1997). I’ve since gone on to see most of his movies, though this is many years later. The film that I guess was the one that I avoided more than others was his follow-up to Gummo, 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy. Coming right after Gummo and dealing with a lot of similar motifs and ideas (so it seemed), I doubted it would be much different. But now, having finally seen it, I’m really thinking that I should at least refresh myself with Gummo so that I’m speaking coherently about my feelings towards his films.
I’ve long held this idea that if it has been more than 10 years since interacting with a film or book or whatever, it might be worth revisiting to establish that my opinion has not changed. It’s a simple formula. Ten years is a significant time. You forget, even something that made a serious impression a decade ago, you don’t fully remember. But you also change, your perspective changes, who you are changes, so your idea of something may well change too.
It’s not a mandate. But if you’re trying to examine something related, it’s better to have a fresh impression to work with.
In this case, I was trying to work my way through some of the films that had been on my queue for 10 years.
I think if I’d seen Julien Donkey-Boy back in 1999 or so, I’d have probably hated it as much as I hated Gummo at the time. It features an actor playing someone mentally deficient and acting like a kook. In this case, it’s Ewan Bremner playing the title character Julien. Julien is based on an uncle of Korine’s who suffered(s) from schizophrenia and apparently the character’s behaviors and speech are modeled specifically on that real person. And this portrayal is meant to be sympathetic.
Korine’s fascination with fringe American characters is highly on display here. There is a community of deaf people, a man born with no arms, the mentally disabled, the drug-addicted, the more generally crazy. Riding a line of exploitation and endearment is something that Korine does, though arguably with many slips into either side.
Bremner’s performance is earnest but also annoying. Werner Herzog is the patriarch of the dysfunctional family. Chloë Sevigny is the pregnant older sister. Pregnant by her brother Julien. So there’s incest too. And a creepy relationship with a young blind girl (who has some affecting little scenes).
The film was made in accordance (though also out of accordance) with the Dogme 95 rules.
Strangely, though I found pretention and obnoxiousness in the film, I somehow also found something evocative. It’s hard to say exactly what or how or why. I guess that is my consistency with Korine’s films: conflicted ambivalence.