The poet Robert Frost, who once described free verse as ”play[ing] tennis with the net down,” would have given two thumbs up to the whimsically stringent aesthetic ”vow of chastity” known as Dogma 95. Creative fruit of the Danish manifesto (involving assorted cinematic restrictions on the use of light, sound, and props) is now being harvested in film festivals. But, to my mind, no disciple has been born again through self-denial quite like Harmony Korine, whose julien donkey-boy is the first American film to earn the official Dogma 95 seal of approval.
And I say this as someone who thought the unruly 25-year-old’s first directorial effort, Gummo, was sheer, slummy junk. Korine remains unnecessarily smitten with sordidness, and there’s plenty of it here, beginning with an opening act of amoral violence, and culminating in the madman rants of a sadistic father zestily interpreted by Werner Herzog. But in julien — the title character, played with intensity by Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner, is a schizophrenic young man in a family so misbegotten, Diane Arbus might pack up her camera and flee — the director has made an exciting artistic leap.
I don’t know if the original Dogmatics had Sundance-or-bust digital video cameras in mind when they nailed their credo to the theater doors, but the rules are tailor-made for a new kind of narrative suited to 21st-century technology. Julien’s pregnant sister, Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), ice-skates. Julien’s family prays at a black Baptist church. Julien embarks on one final, pathetic flight from reality. And Korine — working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot the Dogma breakthrough The Celebration — discovers visual ways to convey emotional terrain that will serve him well, I hope, even after he outgrows shock as an artistic goal. B+