A Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) is finding life in Paris a largely solitary experience, even as he plies his trade "busking" on the streets while he busts some recognisable moves to a predominantly indifferent public. His agent, Renard (Leos Carax) tries to sympathise with him, but Michael is a closed shell, at least until Renard tells him he has a gig for him lined up. This is in an old folks retirement home, where he entertains the residents by doing his dances and whooping, then imploring them that they will live forever. All very well, but it's when a Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) impersonator arrives that his life finally changes...
Harmony Korine showed few signs of turning more conventional with Mister Lonely, which began with the Bobby Vinton song of the title (cheaper to get than Jackson songs) played in full over slow motion footage of a Jackson impersonator riding a tiny motorbike with a toy monkey attached to its aerial. What has this to do with the cult of celebrity that supposedly the film is concerning itself with? Actually, never mind that, what do the scenes with the nuns have to do with it? The story of Michael is interpersed with bits about Werner Herzog as a priest in South America who is flying food packages to the impoverished.
There are those who viewed this as a comedy, and there are parts which raise a laugh, but it's not exactly jampacked with kneeslappers and sidesplitters. What is funny is that one of the nuns falls out of the plane and through the power of prayer finds she can survive the plummet and land safely. Then she encourages her fellow sisters to do the same, which leads up to a callous punchline which may amuse you if you like darkly ironic humour. But what of Michael and Marilyn? Where are they headed after their fateful, French meeting?
To the Highlands of Scotland, that's where, as Marilyn takes her new friend to a special retreat where we can meet more cult figures, both as actors and their roles, as if Carax wasn't enough for you. They are all impersonators too, with James Fox as the Pope (can there be much demand for that?), Anita Pallenberg as Queen Elizabeth II, and Denis Lavant as Marilyn's not exactly easygoing husband, who thinks he is Charlie Chaplin and has sired a daughter with her who wants to be Shirley Temple. There's more, including all three Three Stooges, Sammy Davis Jr, a swearing Abraham Lincoln and Madonna circa the early nineties.
All very well, but what does this tell us about famous people? Not very much, but it does tell us that, never mind what Kurt Vonnegut said, we are not who we pretend to be but are in fact ourselves, so no matter how we may try to escape that fact by losing ourselves in the famous or even by adopting new identities there is no covering up our true personalities, with all the joy and heartache that comes with them. The impersonators are planning a big stage show and the Stooges are building a theatre for this to be held in, but when we finally see the show it is clear that it was put on more for the performers' benefit than that of the audience, such as it was. Mister Lonely was reviled in many quarters for its ghastly self-indulgence, but you could also take the film as a work of pure imagination, belonging to Korine and his brother who wrote the script. It treads its own path, perhaps not to the point that it's hugely enlightening, but if you have patience the quirky and troubling rewards are there.