Review of "Julien Donkey-Boy"

By Harmony Korine (Director)
Harmony Korine, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 4th 2005
Julien Donkey-Boy

Viewing the wide variety of reviews of Julien Donkey-Boy, it becomes clear that reviews of this film tell us as much about the reviewer as they do about the film. "A self-indulgent mess," complains the San Francisco Chronicle, while the LA Times gushes, "A film of piercing beauty and pain." Inevitably then, I can only write a personal and subjective reaction to this magnificent film that most people I know would be unwilling to sit through.

Julien Donkey-Boy is a film by Harmony Korine, who wrote the screenplay to Kids when he was eighteen. It is based on his own family, and especially his uncle Eddie who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The film, released in 1999, is affiliated with the Dogma95 movement that is associated with Lars von Trier. The Dogma95 Vow of Chastity has 10 rules, to which Korine mostly abides. All the shooting must be on location, and Korine even films a large portion of the work in the family home where he grew and his brother. Rule 3 is that the camera must be hand-held: Korine uses video cameras and introduces small hidden cams worn by actors in real locations, such as a thrift store. Korine also uses a great deal of improvisation and cuts scenes at odd places, sometimes replacing moving pictures with a series of stills, or abruptly stopping a piece of music or sequence of words in the middle, giving a sense of being thoroughly against the production values of Hollywood. The music is diverse, ranging from classical singing to the electronic ambient/industrial sounds of Oval. While there is a plot, most scenes are not plot-driven, and the whole film has a sense of disconnectedness and unpredictability. The editing style occasionally changes vary abruptly for short periods, and the texture of the film and quality of lighting are similar to what most people would get from using a video camera at home. Scenes start abruptly and ends in dissolution.

The fundamental aim of the Dogma95 approach is "is to force the truth out of my characters and settings" rather than creating a personal work. Actor Ewen Bremner spent a great deal of time in preparation for the film with Korine's uncle in his permanent residence, and he does such a remarkable job portraying Julien that if one didn't know it was acting, one might suspect that Bremner was himself schizophrenic. The film is a portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional family rather than just one person though. Julien has a brother Chris and a sister Pearl, played by Evan Neuman and Chloe Sevigny. German film director Werner Herzog plays their father, and his performance as a tyrannical and bizarre man is chilling as he berates and belittles his children.

While the acting is astonishing, it is matched by the settings in which the characters are placed. Julien is filmed talking to himself on a city street, Pearl who is pregnant talks to people she meets when she is shopping for baby clothes, the father playing cards with a man without arms, and the whole family at an African-American evangelical church, and in each case, we get a strong sense of the location and the spontaneity of real life. These varied scenes, collected together like a patchwork quilt, are transfixing.

While Julien does behave strangely, it isn't clear that he is any more disturbed than the rest of his family, except that he has more difficulty coping with the world. The film is not so much a picture of an individual with schizophrenia as a portrayal of a disturbed family. It is fragmented and hard to follow. I have watched the film twice now, and I still do not understand what is meant to have happened in the opening scene. Korine explains in the accompanying featurette The Confessions of Julien Donkey-Boy, he wanted to show schizophrenia in a more realistic way that is commonly done, emphasizing the pain and inappropriate behavior that often come with the condition. He is successful in this ambition, and in many ways the film is a brutal experience for the viewer. However, it is also beautiful and reflective, and while most reviewers report that they would not want to see the film many times, I look forward to including it in some of my undergraduate classes on mental illness and to seeing it many times.




2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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