It has been eight years since Harmony Korine’s last film, the Dogme-inspired Julien Donkey-Boy. In that time, the one-time wunderkind of American experimental cinema has written a couple of books, directed a few music videos and a documentary, suffered one or two nervous breakdowns and struggled to write, finance and shoot this, his third film as a director. But the wait has been worth it: Mister Lonely is a revelation, alive with genuine passion and wonderment, hysterical, tragic and deeply moving.
A brief synopsis can never do the film justice: Diego Luna plays a Michael Jackson impersonator living and working in Paris, consumed by his role and eking out a meagre living through street shows and old folks homes. He meets Samantha Morton’s Marilyn Monroe, who invites him to join a commune of like-minded souls in a remote castle in the Scottish Highlands. But as Michael and Marilyn’s friendship blossoms, trouble arises in the shape of her husband Charlie Chaplin, whose jealousy and erratic behaviour are more reminiscent of that other moustachioed 1930s joker…
Mister Lonely is clearly the work of a man clawing his way out of a long darkness: the film is about acceptance and rebirth, the need to find kinship amid the confusion of modern living. Michael is, as the title suggests, completely cut off, the focus of attention but always for his appearance, his mannerisms, never his true personality, if such a thing even exists. But in this community of his peers – which include Madonna, James Dean, Little Red Riding Hood and the extraordinary double act of James Fox as the Pope and Anita Pallenberg as the Queen – he finally finds somewhere he can call home.
The comic possibilities inherent in the set-up are explored to full effect, as Sammy Davis Jr. throws shapes on the parapets, or Abraham Lincoln drives a mini-tractor through the sheep paddock, screaming obscenities at the Three Stooges. But there’s so much more to Korine’s script than mere kitsch: these are rounded, fascinating characters, and each gets their moment to shine. Every one of the actors seems completely absorbed in their role – during shooting Korine and his cast lived together at the location, and you can feel the camaraderie.
What’s initially perplexing about the film is a seemingly unconnected second narrative which occasionally interrupts the main story: in Panama, Werner Herzog’s priest is flying relief missions when a nun accidentally falls from the plane. But as each tale unfolds the parallels become, if not clear, then understandable – both stories are about isolated characters on the verge of wondrous discoveries, both deal in matters of faith and self-worth, and if the links between them aren’t entirely justifiable, each is so rewarding in its own right that to complain would seem churlish.
Perhaps the only sour note the film strikes is in the way each narrative strand concludes, for here Korine the wide-eyed innocent is replaced by the familiar disillusioned art-cynic, and although the effect is undeniably powerful one wonders if a little faith wouldn’t have benefited the director as much as his characters. But this is a minor gripe – overall, Mister Lonely is something of a masterpiece, rich with emotion and character depth, and consistently surprising in all the right ways.