Directed by Jessica Yu

Making a documentary about a recluse is no easy task. For IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, Jessica Yu chose a particularly elusive subject. Writer/painter Henry Darger never showed his work to anyone else while alive. Only after his death did his landlord discover that he’d written a 15,000-page novel. Consequently, it’s easy for an audience to use him as a blank slate. One recent documentary, Chad Freidrichs’JANDEK ON CORWOOD,  uses a reclusive musician as a means to explore fandom, but Jandek, who has made 38 albums since 1978 but only given two interviews and played live once, looks like a publicity hound next to Darger. Possibly to its detriment, IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL avoids the subject of his posthumous reception.

Henry Darger grew up in Chicago. After a rough childhood that culminated in a stay at a home for the “feeble-minded,” he lived an uneventful life He worked a series of janitorial jobs and attended Mass several times a day. However, he spent all his spare time writing and painting. His novel, IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, tells the story of the Vivian Girls, child slaves fighting a religious war against an evil army. The girls are often depicted naked, usually with penises.

IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL is assembled from Darger’s paintings, stock photos and film footage and interviews with his neighbors. Yu sprinkles quotes and narration over the artwork, often having several people repeat the same idea. Animating Darger’s images is her strangest and most questionable decision. First, it betrays the integrity of the original paintings. Would any filmmaker making a documentary about late artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring alter their images? Second, it tends to emphasize the cutest aspects of Darger’s work.

In fact, a director of Japanese anime porn might be the best person to animate Darger. He wasn’t simply a painter of cute children’s fantasy. While “In the Realms of the Unreal” avoids this side of his work, he also depicted the Vivian Girls being raped. His sympathies clearly lay with children, yet he seemed to be fascinated by violence against them. The film’s Darger is an asexual figure: one interview subject suggests that he didn’t know the difference between male and female genitalia. Yet a neighbor reports that he once claimed to have been raped by an Italian woman. Although this is brushed aside,  it was certainly relevant to his work.

These sexual frissons are key to the fascination of Darger’s work, which combines apparent naiveté and perversity. If IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL shies away from the latter, it does a decent job of illuminating the contrast between his real and fantasy lives. The use of animation to dramatize this distinction is more defensible: Yu incorporates newsreels about the wonders of Chicago in life and shows the Vivian Girls running through the city. It’s not bad as a metaphor for the duality of Darger’s life. Even so, Larry Pine’s voice-over, drawing on Darger’s writing, blurs the difference between his fiction - in which the artist appears as a character - and autobiographical texts.

Ultimately, IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL points out the essentially enigmatic nature of Darger’s life. He had few friends and died in the same Catholic poorhouse where his father ended up. Yet he had an extraordinarily rich fantasy life. Did he waste his life by pouring all his energy into vicarious adventures? Were the Vivian Girls a metaphor for his childhood difficulties? Judging from Pine’s voice-over, Darger didn’t write much about his adult life. Perhaps the art is richer because we don’t know a lot about the person who made it. (That said, the possibility that he was schizophrenic - or at least mentally ill in some mild way - has certainly added to its cachet.) To its credit, IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. It would be more satisfying, though, if it had a better idea of what questions to ask.