Harmony Korine's julien donkey-boy is filled with juxtapositions like this, scenes and images colliding in ways you have never seen before. Though it has influences -- Korine explicitly acknowledges a profound one by casting Werner Herzog as the tyrannical father -- it has no major precedents. The compassionately unflinching portrait of mental illness is matched by Korine's terrified understanding of how this supremely dysfunctional family struggles on as best they can (including ChloË Sevigny, wispy but resilient as a pregnant sister, and Evan Neumann as a would-be wrestler, mercilessly bullied by Dad to "be a man").
Not content to stop there, Korine consistently halts his story, and hands his movie over to people who've caught his fancy -- an albino rapper, an armless drummer -- patiently watching them for a mesmerizing minute or two.
Korine's first film, Gummo, was four or five steps beyond just being an auspicious debut. Hilarious, scathing, humane, emotionally naked, it is one of those films that single-handedly makes every other movie look timid and old-fashioned. It's no surprise that some people hated it, but maybe even Korine flinched at how much it promised for his future.
Avoiding either repeating Gummo's discursive rawness or taking it to the next level, Korine has fashioned julien donkey-boy as a series of challenges to himself: One, to portray the world view of a schizophrenic (inspired by Korine's uncle) -- a task which demanded a focus his previous film lacked; two, to work with a script largely improvised by the actors, which would keep a director on his toes as much as anyone; and three, to abide by the conditions of Dogme95, the Danish manifesto calling for no artificial on-set conditions or post-production trickery, among other requirements. (Korine also grabbed his key crew members from the Dogme production The Celebration: cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir, both of whose work is masterly.)
A bit of thought will show that not only are these three agendas restrictive, they're mutually opposed. The intensive planning needed to ensure that Dogme-mandated hand-held cameras capture all the action is thrown out the window by the decision to improv -- just as the freedom that generates makes maintaining any one point of view (let alone that of a mentally disturbed man) nearly impossible. A good test of artists is how they handle obstacles. I think it's telling that Korine presented himself with so many, as if he knew that anything thrown at him from the outside would be too easy to deal with.
Korine's solutions to the problems he created are always ingenious and original and often breathtaking, but he doesn't leap his self-imposed hurdles with ease, and I don't think he wanted to. The strain of keeping everything in play helps the movie, just as the discordant jumble of images (to capture the film's distinctive "video" look, Korine used methods as high-tech as the latest hidden cameras and as no-tech as shooting images off a TV screen) only add to the sense that Julien is constantly about to lose contact with the world. There's a determined rigor to julien donkey-boy that makes it, yes, more conventional than its predecessor (not that you'll be seeing it pop up in many multiplexes), but also more tragic.
After seeing Gummo, I referred to Korine as one of our very best young directors; now that's looking like a huge understatement.