Of all of writer-director Harmony Korine’s provocations—from his angsty urban Kids, to his chronicling of windfallen townies on the margins in Gummo, to his tribulations of teen princesses turned gangsters in Spring Breakers—is his most confounding a vision of faith? Of a(n implicitly) queer utopia that couldn’t possibly exist? Of Heaven? Mister Lonely, his 2007 tale of misfits as celebrity impersonators trying to assemble a show to confirm their own sense of destiny while living in a castle in the Scottish Highlands (led by Denis Lavant as “Charlie Chaplin” and the man who joins them, Diego Luna as “Michael Jackson”) is a work that requires the most patience of his oeuvre. Even compared to his bizarre video experiment Trash Humpers, which is about exactly what you think it’s about and is as damning a digitally splattered portrait of class marginality and white privilege and racism as any of his works, Mister Lonely doesn’t have the aggressive sensibility, the aesthetic or narrative middle finger, the bile that is frequently associated with Korine’s filmography. It is a balm, a strange rumination on the nature of identity, celebrity, liminality and the queerness of performance.
For Luna’s Michael Jackson lookalike, there’s little work to be found on the sweltering streets of Paris, and his manager (Leos Carax) can only ever really find him at a Parisian rest home. His fateful meeting with Samantha Morton’s Marilyn Monroe takes him to a castle with other impersonators: James Dean (Joseph Morgan), Buckwheat (Michael-Joel Stuart), Abe Lincoln (Richard Strange), Madonna (Melita Morgan), the Pope (James Fox), the Queen (Anita Pallenberg), Little Red Riding Hood (Rachel Korine), Sammy Davis Jr. (Jason Pennycook) and Charlie Chaplin. They fluctuate in their abilities, or desires, to embody the celebrities they’re living as “accurately,” and more often than not, that embodiment is, as with many celebrity impersonators, affectation and approximation. They have no one but one another to validate them, and no one to perform for, with the dream of having a space for themselves and the dream of a space for the rest of the world to see them (a little theater they’re building) contradicting one another.
It feels bold that Korine would so assuredly assert Mister Lonely as a film about the displacement of the body and spirit. “Jackson” begins the film talking about his discomfort with his identity, wondering at the audience, “I don’t know if you know what it is like to want to be someone else. To not want to look like you look. To hate your face and to go completely unnoticed.” That Diego Luna is embodying Michael Jackson, and a particular iteration of Michael Jackson, is telling insofar as the relationship to their shared self-loathing. Men in transition: Jackson in a space of racial (and performative gender) in-between, and Luna not a celebrity, but aping the affectations of one, recognizable (enough) as one.
There is, then, an uncanny quality to everyone’s impersonation. Samantha Morton gets an idea of Monroe’s voice right, and an idea of the diamond-loving icon’s sultriness right, but there’s a mysteriousness to her recreation that is hard to articulate. Everyone on the commune is like that, their allegiance to the person they’re playing unpredictable. Where Anita Pallenberg ends and the Queen begins is unclear, obfuscated by the essences of both the impersonator and the person they’re impersonating.
These characters, parodies of both the people and the celebrities they imitate, are at odds with their own bodies and the bodies of the icons they seek to perform as, emulate and/or inhabit. “Jackson”’s manager talks about the ideal of living as who you are not, owning another’s face, a notion that is familiar to queer people grasping onto something that we may believe to be legible to the rest of the world through familiarity, but then end up rendering as only discernible to us and other queers. Reanimating the dead in and as costumery. How queer that is.
Queer people, in particular, seem to have the ability to read depth into surfaces. For the uninitiated, impersonators are kitschy, tacky, in bad taste. For those that recognize a yearning to find a part of themselves in what others deem disposable or disreputable, impersonators provide the same kind of pleasure of disidentification—coined by queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, meaning “to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect’” to a broader normative society—as drag. I mean, it is drag. Drag is not infrequently referred to as “female impersonation,” and similar rules and kinds of ethos regarding the deconstruction of identity, its untethering and retooling, apply to celebrity impersonation.
Thus, it seems less blasphemous for Korine, who is straight, to allegorize or find in his impersonation drama a connection to queerness, because he, like someone such as David Lynch, has an acute understanding of the surreality of life and of a dominant society’s power to other and marginalize people. So, too, does Korine understand the way in which power between the dominant and the othered may become in flux in small attempts to reclaim space and power or undermine institutional oppression. Spring Breakers, for instance, is a fascinating examination of class, race and gender in a “Millennial” context.
Perhaps more importantly in Mister Lonely is his understanding that surfaces, essences and otherness do not negate abuse of power. Lavant’s “Charlie Chaplin” is jealous, cruel and narcissistic, calling “Monroe” a slut, taking ownership of her body when he has no right. “Monroe,” whose innocence and purity exists in opposition to “Chaplin”’s feigned version of that, opines that he sometimes looks more like Adolf Hitler than Chaplin.
The commune on which the impersonators live should be perfect, a Heaven. In their small performance, everyone dances to “Cheek to Cheek,” and everyone hums it, too. “Heaven, I’m in Heaven…” A side plot involves Werner Herzog as a priest and a nun (Britta Gartner) who miraculously survives a fall from the sky. She then pushes others in the convent to fall alongside her again, with the protection of God aiding their plummet. But the Utopia both the impersonators and the nuns imagine is not what they thought it would be. For the impersonators, the same old exclusion, abuse and power plays pervade the castle. Even in a place for “people like them,” something is wrong. Heaven is not a place on earth, necessarily. Or maybe it is? In its contradictions, Korine quietly observes the slow motion of the nuns’ teal billowy habits blowing in the wind, a carny riding a minibike to a Bobby Vinton song and the pleasant mundanity of being with your own kind, away from the rest of the world. It is an imperfect beauty.
Even through the lens of camp in Mister Lonely, Korine, in his most underrated work, recalls Muñoz again. The impersonators’ makeshift safe haven is flawed, not quite Utopia: The “not yet here”-ness of Mister Lonely and their Heaven reminds one of Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, a project that critiques contemporary gay and lesbian politics of “here and now” and, rather, uses the past and its aesthetics to build long into a future that will never be reached, but can constantly be dreamed of and planned for. He writes, “I want in-stead to connote an ideality—a desire for a thing, or a way, that is not here but is nonetheless desirable, something worth striving for.” Though nearly all of its cast is white, they all collectively draw on the iconography of the past, of essences, spirits and aesthetics from another time, to try to build a future in which to find oneself through surfaces. They’re working to find their Heaven. So that they can all dance cheek to cheek.