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[whitespace] Chlöe Sevigny and Chriss Kobylak
Angel in Need: Chlöe Sevigny (right) and Chriss Kobylak in 'julien donkey-boy.'

In Harm's Farm

Harmony Korine's 'julien donkey-boy' is a stubborn beast

By Richard von Busack

ONE OF WILLIAM BLAKE'S Proverbs of Hell posits, "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise." We may be watching the same process in the career of director Harmony Korine, whose new work, julien donkey-boy, is an improvement over his foolish last film, Gummo. The methods are the same: gyrating, motion-sickness-inducing digital camerawork, muttering actors, urine-colored light. But a new compassion seems to be growing in Korine, no matter how he stamps it out. The screenwriter of Kids is not yet 25, and he still has his teenage sensibility intact. Adults are either childlike or monotonous bastards. Women are almost an afterthought compared to the loneliness and purity of the adolescent male. Strangely, though, the most interesting performer in julien donkey-boy is Chloë Sevigny, who appears as sort of a pregnant angel. In the film's best scene, Sevigny is haloed in solarized light as she walks past glowing white weeds, singing a hymn about the Lamb of God. It's a vision out of Blake.

The film's schizophrenic hero, Julien (Ewen Bremner), is the unhappy son of an obsessed German martinet known only as Father (Werner Herzog). Julien's brother, Chris (Evan Neumann), gets the brunt of Father's attention. Father is trying to make a champion Olympic wrestler out of the boy by hosing him down on freezing days, forcing him to jump on plastic trash cans and making him practice a routine in which he climbs up a carpeted staircase using only his hands. Meanwhile, very pregnant sister Pearl (Sevigny) remains mute about the father of her baby. Perhaps she has Virgin Mary fantasies.

Long sequences take place in the presence of performers: armless men who can deal cards, karaoke artists and a man who can smoke 20 cigarettes at once. It's Korine's Cirque Désolé--the director who named a movie after the one member of the Marx Brothers who couldn't perform still has anxieties about his own inability to entertain without bringing on vaudeville. The real voice of the film belongs to Father, since Herzog delivers some ranting, improvised dinner-table monologues.

Korine is the first American to sign up with Dogme 95, the Scandinavian filmmakers' group that eschews gunplay, lighting and soundtrack music (except for ambient music). These rules are like pie crust and promises. The attempt to make more austere films seems to me denied by the melodramatic subject matter the Dogme 95 makers have so far preferred, and Korine, in a film with dead babies, blind girls and incest, has made an erstwhile aesthetic product out of lurid material. When the Dogme 95 directors use their simple methods to chart some of the terrain of more ordinary life, they may be up to something.

julien donkey-boy (R; 94 min.), directed and written by Harmony Korine, photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle and starring Ewen Bremner, Werner Herzog and Chloë Sevigny, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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