"julien donkey-boy" is fascinating viewing for a movie that has nothing to say and nowhere to go.
Gutsy, artistically engrossing and fearlessly acted, it is the second feature of Harmony Korine, the dysfunctional, wonder-freak youth who wrote "Kids," a controversial and disturbingly honest, cinema verite look at urban teenagers, and then turned to directing his own scripts with the widely-panned "Gummo," also about extremely screwed-up adolescents -- something Korine obviously knows a lot about.
A more mature, but ultimately pointless work, "julien" passes through several episodes of the life of a slow-witted schizophrenic (Ewan Bremner, "Trainspotting") and his abstrusely aberrant family in a fly-on-the-wall style, the results are like an art-film version of "COPS," spontaneous and ultra-realistic.
In the opening scene, Julien inadvertently kills a child in a burst of momentary rage while playing with him in a field, and we see it happen from the kid's point of view. The scene serves no purpose but to establish the pasty, sleepy-eyed Julien -- with his snorting laugh, his stutter, his unmanaged hair and metallic, buck-toothed dentures -- as a disturbed man-child, most contented when babbling to himself in his basement bedroom.
Famous German director Werner Herzog ("Little Dieter Needs to Fly") plays Julien's passively malicious, psychologically abusive father who tears into Julien for his mental shortcomings and forces his teenage brother (newcomer Evan Neumann) to pursue extra-curricular wrestling, even though the boy has no talent for the sport.
Chloe Sevigny, who got her start in "Kids" and also appears in this month's "Boys Don't Cry," plays Julien's kindly sister, a character we don't learn much about, other than the fact that she has no prospect for escape from this life and that she has serious emotional issues, illustrated by the fact that she's carrying Julien's baby.
The tension within the family is palatable, and Bremner, Herzog and Sevigny give stunningly authentic performances, but the film has nothing to propel it forward. Until the last 10 minutes, when Sevigny has complications with her pregnancy, there really isn't anything remotely resembling a story.
Somehow Korine manages to maintain a compelling mood -- I was never bored -- mostly because "julien donkey-boy" espouses parts of a new, Dutch filmmaking philosophy called Dogme 95 that makes the picture novel visually.
Dogme 95 eschews manufacturing a film's atmosphere with lights, sets and other traditional cinematic manipulation. Among its rules are that shooting must be done only on location using mostly natural light, no re-recording of sound is allowed and the camera must be hand-held. (Other Dogme 95 films include Lars Von Trier's "The Idiots" and Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration.")
Although Korine shot the movie on a digital video and is wildly and creatively manipulative in his post-production editing and imaging, it's the ultimately low-tech style that lends itself to the voyeuristic feeling of dramatic reality which floats the film.
The problem is, without all this inventive presentation, "julien" would consist of just its dreary unpleasantness -- like John Waters movie without the laughs, or the crash of a clown car -- something you feel compelled to stare at, something that will bounce in and out of your memory for a day or two, but ultimately something you could have done without seeing.