Continuing my long-overdue binge of Harmony Korine’s body of work, I ventured out to Metrograph for a late-night screening of Julien Donkey-Boy. It was certainly an illuminating experience, putting Trash Humpers (which I saw last weekend) into its proper context as the highbrow indie cinema equivalent of a practical joke—a mean-spirited rebellion against the “artsy-fartsy” reputation that the director had developed after efforts like this, the first officially certified Dogme 95 film to be produced outside of Europe.
Which isn’t to suggest that the two movies share nothing in common. Like Trash Humpers, Julien Donkey-Boy eschews traditional narrative structure, instead favoring kaleidoscopic, borderline abstract montages and collages. The closest we get to an actual plot is a series of bizarre encounters with quirky weirdoes, including a cigarette-eating vaudeville performer, a freestyling “black albino straight from Alabama,” and the title character’s abusive father (played with pitch-perfect insanity by Werner Herzog, who may have been unaware that he was being recorded). There is a story this time, but it remains far less important than the atmosphere, which is oppressively, unrelentingly bleak.
Despite these superficial similarities, however, Julien Donkey-Boy succeeds where Trash Humpers fails by exhibiting a sense of purpose—a method to its madness. Amidst all the tragedy and despair (punctuated by brief, fleeting moments of dark comedy that provide little to no relief), Korine discovers genuine beauty, grace, and hope: although he is surrounded by hatred and negativity—his father’s toxic masculinity, his younger brother’s shame and embarrassment—our schizophrenic hero learns the meaning of love from his compassionate sister. Yes, there’s a very substantial possibility that their relationship is incestuous, which is… troubling, but when you’re confronted with such a fundamentally broken world, you have to seize any semblance of happiness you can salvage.
And that thematic complexity makes Julien Donkey-Boy significantly more emotionally-fulfilling than the absurdist chaos of Trash Humpers.