In The Realms Of The Unreal is an intriguing portrait of the double-life of outsider artist Henry Darger. By day Darger worked as a hospital janitor, and by night he toiled away in his Chicago apartment on his fantastical paintings and writings, which were only discovered upon his death in 1983. With actors (including War Of The World's Dakota Fanning) reading from Darger's literary texts, alongside animated sequences of his artwork, Jessica Yu's documentary immerses us in the world of a reclusive individual's bizarre imagination.
The film's title derives from Darger's magnum opus, a 15,000 page novel, which charts the heroic efforts of seven saintly blonde sisters, The Vivians, in their epic fight against godless child-enslaving men. The self-taught artist's giant collages illustrate the adventures of his pre-pubescent heroines, and contain disturbing imagery of violence being inflicted by adults on young girls.
"PAYS TRIBUTE TO A SINGULAR CREATIVITY"
The loner Darger doesn't appear to have been seeking fame or fortune in his creative endeavours. His remarkable output was a means of psychological survival, a way of retreating from the profound unhappiness of real life. His own childhood was deeply traumatic: his mother died in childbirth, his father gave him up for adoption, and he was forced to attend an asylum for "feeble-minded children".
There's no home-movie footage of Darger available to Yu, and only three surviving photos of the man. Yet this heightens the sense of mystery around her subject, as does the conflicting memories of Darger's fellow Catholic church-goers about where he actually sat for mass. And if In The Realms Of The Unreal pays tribute to a singular creativity, it's also a lament for a man who in the words of one witness, "couldn't relate to anybody or anything around him."