Posted March 17, 2013 by William Dunmyer in Avant-Garde

Mister Lonely: Harmony Korine’s Magical Film from 2008

**Originally written May 2008**

“Mister Lonely,” the new film from Harmony Korine, is cause for much rejoicing. American avant-garde cinema is still alive, and Mr. Korine is its new guiding spirit. He is the new Federico Fellini.

“Mister Lonely” is strange, beautiful and deeply tender. It exudes tremendous compassion for misfits who are rejected by mainstream society. We get to know a group of lovable outcasts who live together in a remote castle in Europe. All of them are impersonators; that is, they live their lives imitating iconic figures, such as Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin. In each case, the celebrity is a kind of security blanket for the impersonator, offering protection from the emotional brutality and loneliness of normal society.

The lead character (played by Diego Luna) lives as Michael Jackson. He is befriended in Paris by a woman who lives as Marilyn Monroe (played magnificently by Samantha Morton). She takes him under her wing. As she approaches the castle with her newfound friend, she excitedly yells to her friends, “I found a Michael!”

The impersonators are not psychotic. They know that they are not the people they imitate. They just feel enriched and comforted living their lives as inspiring figures. One impersonator, struggling to articulate what motivates her, says that her mission is to restore a sense of wonder to daily life. I have to say, I did feel wonderment watching these misfits. Wonderment but also sadness. They seemed kind of disabled, and it was a little sad watching them struggle to make sense of adult life. There’s a tragedy at the end of the film that radically transforms one of the lead characters, a tragedy which indicates that Korine also sees a deeply sad aspect to these lives.

But the film presents the characters to some degree also as heroes. Korine most definitely is not making fun of them. If anything, he would be contemptuous of anyone who would mock such people. Korine seems to find these characters more interesting and more worthy of love than people who lead normal lives. These characters may not have ever gotten out of childhood, but who’s to say that adulthood makes sense anyway? These Peter Pan-like characters are certainly more deeply good than normal adults.

Their sensitivity is especially spotlighted when the sheep they raise (90% of their sheep are black, incidentally) become infected with a contagion and have to be put down. When the sheep are killed, everyone is grief-stricken. What is amazing is that Korine does not present the grief as contemptible or pathetic. He presents it as remarkable and beautiful. This passage is one of the film’s most elegiac sequences. If Korine has any hope for the world, it seems, then that hope is embodied by these lost children.

Occasionally, Korine breaks away from this storyline and focuses on a priest and a group of nuns working in an impoverished tropical country. The name of the country is never stated in the film. But Korine actually was in attendance when I saw the film, and at the end he answered a few questions. During his commentary, he mentioned that these sequences were filmed in Panama. The priest is played by a highly animated Werner Herzog, in a fantastic bit of stunt-casting.

There is no connection between the two storylines. The activities of the priest and nuns just echo some of the themes emerging from the main storyline. The Panamanian sequences are highly enigmatic and spiritual. The priest occasionally uses a small airplane to fly over remote villages and drop food. A few nuns ride with him. They experience flights of spiritual ecstasy that are almost frenzied as they push food out of the plane. I stated above that the sheep-killing sequence was among the most elegiac in the film; the scenes in the air are even more so. Korine carried a camera into the airplane with the actors, taking tremendous personal risks, and filmed the airdrops with extraordinary grace. I’d even describe these scenes as hypnotic.

Something terrible happens on one of the missions. I’m not going to discuss it in detail because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I can say that I audibly gasped when it happened. This shock is then followed by a sequence that is among the most memorable and beautiful in cinema history. I’ll just say that it involves someone flying and plunging. Just when you thought there was nothing left to do in cinema that was new, Korine takes a camera into the sky and creates something that is as breathtaking and meaningful as Fellini’s opening sequence of “8 1/2.”

Stepping back from all the magical and tragic goings-on in the film, what do we end up with? What does “Mister Lonely” add up to? Someone in my audience asked Korine that. This good-natured but dim-witted person ventured a totalizing “point” to the film and asked Korine if he’d gotten it right. “Is that the point of the film?” he asked. Korine laughed but then kindly offered some artistic guidance. Basically Korine said that his films are never intended to have a “point” and would never even be complete. They’re more like questions than answers, he said. Someone else asked, Why did you put such-and-such in the film? His answer: “I don’t know. It just felt right.” Like all avant-garde artists, Korine is not much for analysis.

Each person viewing an avant-garde work of art is invited to create his or her own meanings. I found the film a meditation on the fragility of life. One moment life is here, and another moment it’s gone. While it’s here, furthermore, we struggle to make sense of it and find our place in it. In particular, we strive to find kindred souls with whom to bond. At times this proves intensely difficult, which can crush us. But when it works, when we’re in communion with others, God seems to appear. But then he’s gone again.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.