By Pamela Chelin
In the late ’90s, writer/director Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy) was the “it” boy of New York’s downtown scene. To escape the spotlight, he moved to London and then to Paris where he found darkness amid the City of Lights—during a difficult period, he decided that he never wanted to make another film. But, after a journey to his parents’ home in the Panamanian jungle and a few months living with a group of Peruvian fisherman obsessed with tracking dwown an elusive rare fish (which they never found), Korine came full circle. He returned to his hometown of Nashville where he currently lives with his wife, Rachel. On the phone from his home, speaking about his first major project in almost a decade, Mister Lonely, the 34-year-old filmmaker seems to have finally found his place.
“It’s so happy here. The pace of life is different,” he says, relaxed and friendly. “I got my first house and it’s one street over from the house I grew up in. It’s easy for me to disappear here, do my thing and have a couple of good friends. I got really lucky and found Rachel. We have been married for almost exactly a year. It’s terrific.”
Mister Lonely, which Korine co-wrote with his brother Avi, is a marked departure from his earlier work, which he describes as “chaotic and confrontational, subject-wise and stylistically.” The film’s title is a tribute to the Bobby Vinton song of the same name. “I was at a barbecue and I choked on a fucking toothpick,” recalls Korine. “I thought I was going to die. Someone gave me the Heimlich and that song was playing while I was on the ground spitting up. I thought, â€˜Man, this song is really dramatic and it’s almost a movie in and of itself. I have to use this.’”
Korine’s Mister Lonely is a deceptively simple and deeply humane story about a group of loveable misfits—iconic impersonators living in a commune in the Scottish Highlands. Beneath the story’s sweet exterior, however, a pervasive sense of doom punctuates the characters’ optimistic dreams, and the film functions as a commentary on the perils of fame and the art of being human.
Samantha Morton is fabulous as a tragic Marilyn Monroe impersonator unhappily married to a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, portrayed as a sheep in wolf’s clothing by French actor Denis Lavant (he learned English just to be in the film). Together, the couple has a 6-year-old daughter—a Shirley Temple impersonator, of course.
The story also features Mexican actor Diego Luna’s pensive Michael Jackson impersonator, a man who possesses a childlike tenderness and falls for Marilyn Monroe. Other members of this existential commune include The Queen (Anita Pallenberg), The Pope (James Fox) and Little Red Riding Hood (Harmony’s wife, Rachel Korine, in her first acting role). A parallel allegory about a bunch of nuns who skydive in the Latin American jungle, relying upon faith instead of parachutes, runs throughout the film.
“I am always attracted to obsessive people who want to create their own universe,” says Korine, who grew up in a communal setting himself. “These are people who have faith in some kind of poetry and in the magic of the world. They believe that they can survive the falls. I think sometimes these dreamers get it the worst in the end, but at least it’s fun to dream.” He hopes that viewers will walk away from his film feeling inspired. “I would wish that the movie speaks to some kind of hope. I don’t like to talk too much about my intent because sometimes I know what I think and sometimes I don’t know what I think, but I wouldn’t want any of it to contradict what you think or what someone else thought… Whatever happens happens.”
Despite his past successes, Korine admits that he has always wrestled with the notion of being a filmmaker. “Ever since I had any kind of success, I’d always fantasize about walking away from it all,” he says. “Sometimes, I still have a pull in that direction, but I love making films. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s just, I guess, a lot of the stuff that goes with it. I was cast out and, at that point, I felt like I had given everything I had to give and there wasn’t much left, so I thought the most noble thing to do was to disappear.”
Thankfully, for filmgoers, he’s back.