In the movies, sentimentality and exploitation overlap in surprising ways. As I watch Reese Witherspoon wed the man of her dreams, I might feel an impulsive, vicarious thrill. In a much different film, a Pam Grier-cat-fight packs the same punch. Both approaches are visceral. Pleasure overpowers intellect, and gratification takes center stage. When successful, these blunt jolts can be potent and relevant. In rare cases, their clarity amounts to a kind of innocence.
In Mister Lonely, director Harmony Korine uses sentimentality to renew the sense of wonder he once found in exploitation. On its surface, Korine's skate-punk surrealism remains in tact. Mister Lonely is full of skydiving nuns, celebrity impersonators, catatonic old folks, and so on. But this time his mischief collides with an old fashioned narrative. Korine's disturbing transgressions are forced to expand accordingly. They make room for gentle humility.
Mister Lonely is a film about a Michael Jackson impersonator. As a public figure, Jackson fits the film's logic perfectly. The “real” Jackson pursues physical perfection in sentimental terms. He's an abomination masquerading as an ideal form. Scraping away at his genetic identity, he sculpts himself into a Utopian body. As something age-less, genderless, and perhaps ultimately race-less, this pursuit moves only in reverse. If David Bowie aspires to become the Ziggy Stardust of the future, Jackson retreats to the Peter Pan of the past. He aims to please rather than to provoke. And time inevitably catches up with him.
But don't get the wrong impression. There's no sophomoric media theory in Mister Lonely. Korine likes the spectacle of Jacko-- the thrusting, the strutting, the pet monkey-- but he's not interested in pop-culture polemics. He treats his talent and naiveté with affection. Through Diego Luna's sly performance, Jackson becomes a soft-spoken eccentric. An outsider in the Werner Herzog mode, shed of all its destructive bravado. As Luna's Jackson is lead to a fake-celebrity commune by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (the always-fantastic Samantha Morton), his world resembles the backwoods Wisconsin of Stroszek. Mundane icons lose their familiarity, and household figures become auratic.
Herzog appears physically in the film's second (seemingly unrelated) narrative. He plays Father Umbrillo, the chaperone to several skydiving, semi-suicidal nuns on a mission in Panama. Ironically, Herzog's in-joke-ish performance is his least effective contribution to the film. As he orders his harem of holy daredevils to leap out of planes without parachutes, his celeb-status becomes a distraction. But his influence is far from negative. The skydiving sequences mirror the romanticism of The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. Both films showcase literal leaps of faith.
There are more surprising influences than Herzog, as well. I wouldn't exactly call Mister Lonely a “religious” film, but it does evoke a breed of Christian mysticism from classic Hollywood. Films like Strange Cargo (Frank Borzage, 1940) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) share its child-like moral structure, as well as its hodge-podge of expressionism and surrealism. Korine's metaphysical impulses focus more on beauty than God, but he's not drawing from these films ironically. As an exploration of belief, Korine's film is delightfully out of sync with the current era.
Mister Lonely treats celebrities like the romantic landscapes they inhabit. A sense of eternity is projected upon them. The Ansel-Adams-esque bombast of the commune mirrors the “timelessness” of pop stars. Early in the film, Marilyn describes their world as “a place where no one ages.” Time is categorically eliminated. This makes the commune members attractive and unchanging, but also stagnant and ridiculous.
Movement stains this utopia, and it arrives in surprising ways. Denis Lavant's Chaplin acts as a kind of contaminant. He's restless and unstable, blockading the more-wholesome love between Michael and Marilyn. As his paranoia deepens, his performance veers toward The Great Dictator. Eventually, Marilyn suspects this dark transformation: “Sometimes when I look at you, you seem more like Adolf Hitler than Charlie Chaplin.” His moustache shifts the film's surface. It becomes a kind of cross-dresser. And Korine just lets us look at it.
The film's ambiguous philosophy comes to completion via a flock of sickly sheep. Their execution mirrors the hunting party from Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939). Both sequences mark a sudden shift in attitude, but neither film sours completely in its worldview. The demise of the sheep foreshadows the demise of the commune, but Mister Lonely never resorts to satire. Instead, the sequence showcases the bizarre sincerity of its characters. They seem incapable of comprehending death. Their radical ignorance is both idiotic and strangely inspiring. As the film's content grows darker, its subjects stick to their sentimental extremes. They're completely unprepared for reality. And as it arrives, their inability to react seems somehow admirable.
This stubbornness creates the central tension of Mister Lonely. In a very genuine sense, it's a film that believes in miracles. But it maintains an equal fascination with the failure of miracles. It celebrates the transformative power of failure-- the changes it engenders and the imagery it generates. Mister Lonely acknowledges the sickness of escapism while celebrating a deep need to flee from the world. And it maintains a steady gaze as its world erodes.