Written and Directed by Harmony Korine
391 Productions, 1999
By Jessie Skinner
We are all very much concerned with our little things. Our little pictures and paper scraps encase us in our memories, and for those who consistently hoard, we are surrounded by them. We are capable of keeping these pieces of our lives in order, for comfort or personal cohesion. I can go through my top dresser drawer and relive the past ten years of my life in my mind. Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-boy is very much about the inability to find cohesion. For its protagonist, a schizophrenic, memory never seems to rest. It is always bouncing about, and each new moment seems alien and inexplicable. It is, I believe, one of the most profound films ever made about mental illness, because unlike others it treats the unstable condition as inescapable rather than something to be overcome. When Julien (Ewen Bremner) talks to himself on a street corner, he is not accosted or stared at as would be so common to show the ignorance of the world. He is simply there in his own place, unable to leave. At one point, his brother cries at him to just “snap out of it,” but the moment will never come.
Julien does not make a journey, nor does he find redemption. The finale drenched in tragedy seems all the more existential when one considers the opening images, which are less explicit but no less unnerving. Whether depressing or not, no film is daring in book-ending itself with violence. Julien’s life is presented in Dogme-style vignettes. He goes to church, goes bowling, points a rifle at himself in the mirror and barks orders. His family is unable to deal with him without slipping into neglect. Both his brother and father (the latter of which, curiously, is played by the eccentric Werner Herzog) cannot quite understand his condition, though they seem to be trying. The angel of his life is his sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny), who not only understands Julien but also loves him deeply, aware of what is required to care for him emotionally.
The idea of telling the story of a schizophrenic without resulting to pandering could conceivably make a great film, but the genius is in the execution. Korine’s endless experimentation with sound, editing, and camerawork fragments the film into hundreds of tiny pieces that never quite fit together, never quite allowing the audience to see things as if they were using their own able eyes. It was the first American film to follow the rules of the Dogme-95 movement, a technical restraint on overly fake lighting, sound, etc. It is also in my mind only one of a handful of films (including the wonderful Festen) to use the Dogme rules creatively. Instead of coming off as pretentious, the method is powerful, as it is grounded in the idea that maybe it is possible to imagine what life for Julien might be like. Disembodied voices float in and out, as when a story about parrots told by his father seems to arrive without context. Perhaps context was there at one point, but within Julien’s childlike mental abilities it is all but lost. So it sits — a memory without a connection.
I try not to slip into hyperbole whenever it becomes easy, but I can safely say that the film ends as one of the most heartbreaking I have ever seen. Perhaps because it does not build to tragedy, but such as real life it simply arrives there, and the climax is all the more difficult to bear. I recommend Julien Donkey-boy and value it for its commitment to humanizing the disabled, to perhaps try and shake us out of apathy. It is not all dark, though it may seem so, because at the core it is about Pearl’s love for her brother, and her unwillingness to wish for him to change.