Directed by Erick Zonca
Written by Erick Zonca and Aude Py
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Saul Rubinek, Kate del Castillo, Aidan Gould, Jude Ciccollela
Run Time: 138 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Erick Zonca’s first film in the decade following his brilliant first feature, The Dreamlife of Angels, is a strange duck of a movie. Julia at first seems like another Bressonian slice of realism, a sad portrait of an alcoholic woman who is about a hair’s breadth away from hitting rock bottom. Then, in an abrupt and daring change of genre, the film turns into a crime thriller, an intense, almost painful to watch series of events that prove our heroine can not only drink, but she can shoot, too. To top it off (and alienate some audiences who think children and violence shouldn’t mix), there’s the fate of a young boy right in the middle of it. Not only is he the victim of criminal act whose life is constantly being placed at risk, it is our heroine who is the perpetrator.
The scenes involving the young boy may be off-putting to some, but they ultimately provide the glue that keeps us in our seats for over two hours. That, and Tilda Swinton’s ballsy, knockout performance as Julia. Tilda Swinton is too aristocratic to play a real broad, and that’s what’s so interesting about how she embodies Julia. There’s a sense of refinement underneath all that drunken swagger and mouthy indifference, and it compounds the tragedy. We see Julia as someone who could have had a completely different life, if it weren’t for her love affair with booze.
And Ms. Swinton’s portrayal of an alcoholic is dead-on. In the film’s early scenes, she’s either drunk or hung-over, and it’s a lark for us Swinton fans to see her chew up the scenery with every flounce she makes, every swear word she utters. I don’t know how many times she spits out the words “fat ass” when her boss tells her she’s fired, but every time is as deliciously satisfying as the one before. Ms. Swinton can even swear better than anyone else, and her American accent is…you guessed it…pretty darn good, too.
As played by Ms. Swinton, Julia is a beautiful, blowsy bar fly who seems not so much resigned to self-destruction as heading towards it kicking and screaming. She has just lost her job and, cynical and wearing thin at forty, she smells desperate times ahead. The setting is ripe for a lost weekend type of movie, one where our heroine learns some profound life lessons, or in a film by a Frenchman like Mr. Zonca, ends up in a ditch somewhere. But Mr. Zonca has no interest in making a movie about alcoholism. He’s just setting the stage for what the movie is really about, and that is how much deeper in shit is someone willing to go once they are already deep in shit, and where do they draw the line.
The moral quandary that Julia faces involves a murder she sort of “accidentally” commits while bungling her way through an attempt to kidnap a young boy for a hefty ransom—an act of desperation that Julia goes into much like she goes into a bar, with a dangerous mix of playacting and guts. The rest of the movie is a relentless series of unfortunate events that get Julia deeper and deeper into shit, and ends up exactly where we expected it to, eventually involving the fate of the boy’s life.
Without giving away what happens, I must admit that although Julia ends with a justification of the ultimate power of the human spirit over the power of money, I still felt a little gypped. I wasn’t looking for a redemptive act, but I felt like that was where the movie took me, and I wasn’t ready for it, especially after the nearly hour-long testimonial to her thirst for money and a callous mistreatment of the boy. I did find out where she drew the line, however, even though it was messily drawn.
Still, there is something about Julia that I found compelling, something that goes beyond the obvious wonder of Tilda Swinton’s high-pitched performance. Erick Zonca has a way of directing that I find fascinating. In an interview, Ms. Swinton described the filmmaker as having “a zoological scrutiny that is quite arc-less,” and I think that sums it up nicely. I didn’t watch Julia so much as become a part of it. I felt like I was inside the head of an alcoholic in survival mode—I felt her hangovers, I pulled the trigger right along with her, and I, too, felt the determination to get off that elevator, even though it might mean facing a deranged gunman. Mr. Zonca has that rare ability to draw you into his movies, and to embrace his characters, even the morally corrupt, with not necessarily empathy, but certainly a keen, almost obsessive, interest. If a film can force me to get involved to that extent, I must pay attention to its worth.
Julia was not well received by critics after its debut at the Berlin Film festival in 2008, but Tilda Swinton’s rise to stardom in the U.S. should help give the film a second chance. Still, its release will be limited. I was lucky enough to get to see it when the San Francisco Film Society chose it for its SFFS Screen series. The film opens its run at the Sundance Kabuki on July 10. I recommend going to see it, but don’t blame me when you feel like you’ve downed a fifth of vodka afterwards.
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