Who hasn’t felt lonely at some point? Who hasn’t spent endless nights staring out a window? Who hasn’t felt that strange pain in your chest when you spot a group of people screaming, laughing, and having fun while walking alone on the street? Loneliness is one of the most common themes in film, yet nobody has ever portrayed it with the awkwardness, or the poetic and crude sensitivity of Harmony Korine. When he was twenty-two years old, he shocked the cinema world with the screenplay for Kids (1995), a documentary-style story about drug-addled promiscuous youth in New York City. Thirteen years later, he comes back with a maturity unusual for a filmmaker who is not even forty with Mister Lonely, his most important and complex piece to date.
Written in collaboration with his brother Avi, Mister Lonely tells the story of Michael Jackson (Diego Luna), a young Mexican immigrant who roams the streets of Paris impersonating–and living his everyday life as–Michael Jackson. He is delicate, shy, and wears a surgical mask in public spaces. Michael confesses his strong and heartbreaking desire to be someone else to a tape recorder, expressing his disappointment with his personality and looks. While performing in a nursing home, tenderly making the elderly sing and hope to live forever, he meets Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), who convinces him to move to a community of impersonators lead by her husband Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant), as they are getting ready to perform the best show ever. They live in an isolated commune in the hills, and a better place couldn’t exist for this wacky group of impersonators–everyone is accepted by the others devoid of judgment or prejudice, and things run according to their own rules.
In the meantime, a parallel story unfolds in what seems to be a disconnected plot, though beneath the surface they share a common soul. Thousands of miles away, in some Latin American village, a foreign priest (Werner Herzog, the great German filmmaker) works with nuns in a mission to distribute food to the poorest communities. Like the impersonators, all of them are true believers, the purest dreamers: defined by desire, devotion, obsession.
From the first scene, the film submerges us in a type of slow-motion dream. Harmony Korine confesses that the story originated as isolated images that later started taking on shape. This is sometimes intricately translated to the screen, but it is exactly what makes the film so interesting: everyone can take the different symbolisms and align them in different directions.
The impersonators share a very particular characteristic: they are all awful performers – yet they believe. Charlie Chaplin behaves more like Hitler than the comic, Abraham Lincoln (Richard Strange) curses and screams exaggeratedly, and every other character in the film is taken to another reality through their own impersonations and others’ souls. Their everyday duality is constantly exposed in public and private: in costume yet naked, embarrassed yet happy.
The main performances of Luna, Morton, Lavant and Herzog are wonderful and rich, exploding their limits thanks to careful direction by Korine, as well as in subtle improvisations. The cinematography by Marcel Zyskind (9 Songs, A Mighty Heart) is stunning, and it’s no surprise to find the name of editor Valdís Oskarsdóttir (responsible for the masterful work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004) in this film’s credits.
Dreams come true crossing the frontiers where Michael, Marilyn and the priest travel to other countries to accomplish their goals and live freer–nuns can fly too. In this thorny world, the pursuit of happiness is probably a never-ending search. The answer, if it exists, is deeply within us. “Sometimes the purest dreamers are the ones that get hurt the most,” says Harmony Korine. In a way, lonely dreamers are not alone. Michael rides a small bike with a cuddly monkey toy attached to it, trying to skate with him. Is Michael happy? We can’t see behind the mask. But something is clear: hope is the last thing we lose, and dreams are the first thing we create.