Julien Donkey-Boy Review

Nick Wrigley has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of julien donkey-boy


We really need more films like JULIEN DONKEY-BOY. Films that question conventional ways of making cinema and can successfully offer an alternative to the faceless selection of crap I see on my local Blockbuster shelves and multiplex screens.

Harmony Korine, the young American director responsible for writing KIDS and directing GUMMO , made this his second feature in 1999. Korine doesn’t make films that would appeal to the mass public, and maybe that’s for the best. If the mass public took a liking to his films it would encourage Joel Schumacher to make films about mental institute inmates, shot to Dogme 95 tenets…. arrghh! But it is clear that Korine’s favourite directors (Werner Herzog, R. W. Fassbinder, and Britain’s Alan Clarke) have influenced his work greatly, and for Korine to bring these influences into today’s flaccid, corporate mainstream hell we call modern culture is surely an event to be encouraged.

Korine recognised soulmates in the Danish Dogme 95 collective (Vinterberg’s FESTEN, Von Trier’s THE IDIOTS, etc.) and when approached by Thomas Vinterberg to make a Dogme film he jumped at the opportunity. I don’t want to get bogged down in the whole “is it or isn’t it a Dogme film” or the ins and outs of it being such a film, suffice to say that I think in principle the Dogme movement is a hugely positive development, and Korine has made a Dogme film to be proud of.

JULIEN DONKEY-BOY is a relatively unconventional film that would make most people wonder what the hell they’d wasted their money on. For the others, with half a brain or more, this film is clearly out to push the envelope of filmmaking – and that’s surely what we all need to happen.

The film centres around fully blown schizophrenic “Julien” played by Ewen Bremner (TRAINSPOTTING, THE ACID HOUSE) and features amongst others (Korine’s real-life girlfriend) Chloe Sevigny as Julien’s sister, and the near-legendary director Werner Herzog as his father.

The film plunges us deep into Julien’s world. We see him helping out at a day centre for the blind, talking about the bible with the residents, hurling abuse at the postman when he doesn’t make a visit at his house, and one of the high points for me: a seriously bizarre shotgun welcome to an imaginary Adolf Hitler who’s come for tea in Julien’s bedroom, etc. (that sort of thing…). The handheld DV cameras create a documentary feel, in fact, miniature DV spy cams were used as hidden cameras to capture the reaction of members of the public as Julien goes about his day.

Korine set out to create a film with an unconventional, strange, distinct look. This was achieved in many ways: ‘frozen’ shots were superimposed in camera, Polaroid stills were used, and the DV was transferred onto 16mm reversal stock before being blown up to 35mm using an optical printer. The speed, ease, and low-cost of DV technology allowed Korine to present his editor with 86 hours of footage after a 24 day shoot. The Director Of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle deserves a mention for his superb camera work (he went on to film DANCER IN THE DARK and Danny Boyle’s new BBC TV plays). The camera is never obtrusive yet always intelligently ready to capture anything before it, like the best documentary filmmakers.


This DVD has been released as a Region 0 disc by Tartan for a UK market. The transfer looks fine, nice anamorphic print of the film. However, JULIEN DONKEY-BOY is a film that does not remotely try to look good in the conventional sense so it’s difficult to really grade the quality of the picture because it’s so strange and purposely cheap and dirty throughout that you tend to become accustomed to its look within a few minutes. I saw this film at the cinema so I know how it looked theatrically and I can say that the DVD does a great job of recreating what I saw.

The extras are ok – there’s a nice little 14 minute Making Of Documentary, where Ewen, Chloe and Harmony are interviewed separately. Harmony wears a Whitesnake t-shirt and seems keen to appear haggard and tired, but what he says is very interesting. Best of all is a fleeting glimpse of Harmony’s real-life Uncle Eddy (on which Julien was based) as Ewen Bremner visits Eddy’s mental institute in order to study his mannerisms.

Other extras such as filmographies, “film review”, and a “vow of chastity” by Harmony, are your usual thing – pages and pages of text that’s none too enjoyable to read on a TV screen nor easy to navigate. Harmony’s vow is very interesting though. I thought the menu screens were a little ugly – the white text looking very pixellated and amateurish, but what matters is the film, and this DVD is great in that respect.

The two deleted scenes are actually very very interesting. I think that Julien’s talk with the doctor/psychologist is one of the best deleted scenes I’ve ever seen on a DVD. It’s then such a shame that all the soundtrack on just this one scene is badly out of sync – by about 12 frames I’d say. I can’t confirm whether the Region 1 DVD is the same, but it’d be interesting to find out if this is a problem with the UK Tartan DVD or whether it’s on both releases.

I thought this film was much more complete and successful than Korine’s previous film GUMMO. The power and believability of Ewen Bremner’s remarkable performance would’ve won the Oscar in 2000 in an ideal world. It’s a completely giving performance, one that can only be matched for me in recent years by Ellen Burstyn in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. Korine’s vocal desire to create a new way of telling stories, a new cinema, is a valiant one and one that he is surely to perfect as he gets older.


We live in a country where Lynda La Plante is a British Film Institute “fellow” alongside Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa on a list of 52 BFI Fellowships so far awarded internationally. The media regularly ask local boy Michael Winner when they need a seasoned British director’s opinion instead of asking obvious beacons like Nic Roeg. Maybe Roeg tells them all to go away, and Winner’s only too keen for the publicity, but I’m slowly circling the carcass of British Film… bear with me. It’s my opinion that we need films like JULIEN DONKEY-BOY to remind us all of just what is possible in film and how terribly stale things have got. Ok, so it’s not an English film, but I don’t care where my films come from as long as they’re this good. There seems to be no-one in the UK willing or able to make films of this artistic calibre. The world sorely needs directors like Korine to ignite the possibilities of film again and again and remind people of just what is possible with this fantastic medium a hundred years down the line.

Nick Wrigley

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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