Without any semblance of a narrative arc, "Julien Donkey-Boy" seems like it will never end. After about an hour, the loosely configured amalgam of drunken soliloquies, gross-outs and frolicking children with Down's syndrome simply begins to ooze on into eternity. It is not a pretty sight.
Then again, it's not supposed to be.
"Julien" is the second film, after "Gummo," from professional Wunderkind Harmony Korine, who first slouched into the media margins with his screenplay for Larry Clark's "Kids." The goofy nihilism of that movie was mitigated by the obvious pleasure Clark took in his protagonists' youthful sensuality. In "Gummo," however, Korine's violent antipathy for "normal" came to full expression, and all the pleasures typically associated with movies -- plot, the actors' physical beauty, metaphor, cinematography -- were eradicated for the sake of an exercise in disgust.
A few viewers saw "Gummo" as a kind of aesthetic obstacle course. Even today, the Net (and the Lower East Side of New York) is littered with those who argue that the squares who don't like Korine's work just lack the intellectual strength to understand it. For Korine's fans, ugliness equals truth, grotesquerie authenticity. They imagine that the art house has become a frat house, and it's a wonder we're not all doing shots in the lobby. (If there's one thing to admire about Korine, it's his skill for exposing the open sore of hipster insecurity.) For his detractors, "Gummo" merely provided a glimpse into a bizarre world where a discerning moviegoer might actually find common ground with Janet Maslin, who called
it the worst picture of the year.
"Julien," sadly, is a movie that repeats Korine's first picture so exactly that it drowns the few who found the brutal originality of "Gummo" its saving grace. The movie revolves around Julien (Ewen Bremner), a schizophrenic young man with fake gold teeth who walks the streets of New York muttering to himself, repeating phrases over and over until the syllables mash together. His exact relationship to the world around him is unclear. He lives at home, goes out on field trips with developmentally challenged youths and wears a bra and underwear to wrestle with his younger brother. He fucks his sister.
Unusually homely here, Chlok Sevigny plays that sibling. Director Werner Herzog acts as Julien's father, a batty, violent drunk who rambles on about birds and does his best to humiliate his children even as he drinks cough syrup out of a shoe. He is the movie's comic relief, a character half Great Santini, half Forrest Gump.
In being so preciously confrontational (does Korine really believe that the presence of handicapped people is avant-garde? Has he seen "Life Goes On"?), Korine implies that the point of "Julien Donkey-Boy" has little to do with the scenes contained within it. The movie is at once repulsive and clichid, and its lessons and themes are merely scattershot afterthoughts to the project of making a movie this bad -- or, if you're feeling generous, profoundly antagonistic. The film is remarkable only in that it refuses to give an inch to the normal conventions of what makes a movie, you know, enjoyable.
"Julien" was made according to the tenets of Dogma 95, the largely European movement based around the "Dogma Vow of Chastity," which eschews, among other things, artificial lighting, costumes and props. With only one rather clumsy film under his belt, Korine couldn't have found adhering to these restrictions much of a sacrifice. But there's no doubt that the jarring visual roughness that the Dogma rules give "Julien" complements the equally discomforting narrative mode. Whatever Korine has made, it wasn't done by accident.
But the deliberateness of his method doesn't make it intelligible. There are occasional intimations that Julien may be some kind of Christ figure (he hosts an imaginary dialog between Jesus and Hitler, playing both the roles himself), but this may be a kind of SETI effect -- random noise that appears to be a pattern only because we really would like to believe we're not wasting our time.
Projects such as "Julien" exist not to explore the essentials of a film, but to induce in audiences a kind of critical vertigo. The filmmaker brings the audience to a precipice of discomfort, implying that the discomfort is itself the point. How else to explain the lengthy scenes of Julien bowling with retarded kids, slow monologues about talking birds or a discursive "magician" who regurgitates lit cigarettes? It all must mean something, right? It's the film's vicious little joke that it doesn't.