Building a narrative from sight and sound instead of story, Julien Donkey-Boy prevails through Harmony Korine’s desire to augment the medium, confronting the formality of fiction with the amateurish and idiosyncratic. His eye for contrast and knack for reanimating outmoded equipment work to democratize the form, conjuring breathtaking images from discarded objects, elevating the smeared color of videotape and harsh light of a Polaroid camera to an ineffable grace. By placing the rudimentary and sophisticated shoulder to shoulder, often through the juxtaposition of arias atop degraded photocopies, Korine redefines beauty, begetting an elegance that lifts the ordinary to the sublime.
Exhibiting a breathing, impressionistic palette, Korine and Anthony Dod Mantle employ the jaggedness of stop-motion animation to blur each gesture and flicker of light, shifting the focus from the inhabiting action in a scene to its physical appearance. Superimposition also contaminates the frame, reducing structures to shapes and spawning startling, alien landscapes from an amalgam of floating heads and the brittle vertebrae of tree branches.
The low-resolution of the camera often enables Korine’s grimmer tendencies, but efforts are made to embrace the film stock’s static-laden warmth, lending the sunlight a warped reverberance that bathes Korine’s muse (Chloë Sevigny) in an amber halo. The drone of radio waves and Valdís Óskarsdóttir’s spasmodic edits also blanket the composition in messy decadence, reflecting the bewilderment of its lead, Julien (Ewen Bremner), through an assemblage of jump cuts and tinted stills that reproduce the psychosis of schizophrenia.
Despite the wealth of technique on display, Korine never bastardizes Julien’s disease in the name of style or shock, demonstrating tenderness towards his peers and restraint in the depiction of domestic abuse. Each elaborate use of collage is intended as an exaltation, upholding the optimism and exuberance of the “disabled” cast as opposition to a segregated cinema and shield from parental cruelty, personified on screen by Julien’s intoxicated patriarch (Werner Herzog).
Though the catastrophe of the closing passages possesses a despair at odds with the hopefulness of his ensemble, Korine’s directorial eye is far more benevolent than in previous endeavors, regarding each peculiarity and parlor trick as endearing trait rather than carnival sideshow. Through the rigid tenets of Dogme 95, Korine absolved himself of exploitative tendencies, repurposing his nostalgia for obsolescence into a statement on cultural disenfranchisement and indifference. By gazing upon his subjects with respect and empathy, he treated their lives as worthy of the melodrama of tragedy.
Julien Donkey-Boy (Fine Line Features, 1999)
Written and Directed by Harmony Korine
Photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle