Julien Donkey Boy (1999) – movie review

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Movie Review by Ellie Buchanan

Starring: Ewan Bremner, Chloë Sevigny
Director: Werner Herzog

The chaos which reigns inside the head of a young American schizophrenic is brought to life in Harmony Korine?s ambitious project, Julien Donkey-Boy, starring Ewan Bremner (of TRAINSPOTTING fame), fellow director Werner Herzog and Korine?s girlfriend Chloë Sevigny.

Some films are destined to be remembered as major turkeys or cult classics: Julien Donkey-Boy is almost certainly one or the other ? or both. Adhering strictly to the Dogme 95 dictum of “authenticity”, a selection of camera techniques from Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle create a deliberately confusing, lo-fi effect. Filmed entirely on handheld digital video cameras, transferred to 16mm and blown up with an optical printer, the home movie feel is a premeditated move to convey the fog inside Julien?s brain.

To some extent this is successful, but there is more than an element of self-consciousness at work here. In the battle between medium and message, the filmmaker?s argument is bound to be that 94 minutes of disjointed, unexplained and apparently random scenes are a clear feed into the mind of the schizophrenic central character ? that we are seeing through his eyes, and understanding with as much befuddlement and lack of continuity or plot as Julien is. However Korine is in danger at times of letting the medium swamp the message.

While nobody is suggesting that this should be a different film with more mainstream values, there is a line beyond which a storyteller?s rejection of structural reference points can interfere with one?s appreciation of the content. Cleverly, Korine straddles that line, taunting the audience with the knowledge that the subject matter itself is a complete disclaimer for any complaints one might level at the way it is presented.

Ewan Bremner gives a convincing performance as the fairly likeable Julien, avoiding the temptation to ham up the role. There is good chemistry between him and his pregnant sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny), who also pretends to be their dead mother so that Julien can talk to her on the telephone. Warming though this is, the innocent-girl-turned-earth-mother bit seems to replace the kind of character development allowed to the principal males.

Potentially the most normal member of the family, Julien?s brother Chris (played by Evan Neumann) is a beleaguered wrestler constantly abused, mentally, physically and emotionally by the family?s father. Their interaction makes for some of the more cohesive parts of the movie; Werner Herzog is superb at conveying the claustrophobia of dysfunctional family life, quixotically worrying away at the trivial and absurd, a control freak who has completely failed to control anyone or anything.

Fly-on-the-wall camera shots allow a voyeuristic peek into the private time of each of the main characters ? a casual murder, a pregnant ballerina, a naked man doing goodness knows what with a gas mask. Since much of the private time is Julien?s, and Julien is strange, it doesn?t need to make much sense. A metaphor lumbers into view when we find him working with blind people (he can see, they can?t, but who?s more blind ? geddit?) and it raises the question that, having obtained such a detailed view from the head of a head case, do you really want it?

2 out of 6 stars