Julia (2008)
Reviewed in October 2008
Top Ten List: #5 of 2008 (world premieres)
Top Ten List: #3 of 2009 (U.S. releases)
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Director: Erick Zonca. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Saul Rubinek, Kate del Castillo, Bruno Bichir, Jude Ciccolella, Eugene Byrd, Horacio Garcia Rojas, John Bellucci. Screenplay: Erick Zonca, Aude Py, Camilla Natta, and Michael Collins.

Photo © 2008 Les Productions Bagheera/StudioCanal
What I knew about Julia heading into the Chicago Film Festival screening was that it was written and directed by Erick Zonca, whose first movie I had liked very much, and that it stars Tilda Swinton as a woman so thoroughly unlikeable that, according to this review from Filmbrain, U.S. buyers at the Berlin Film Festival were loath to distribute it Stateside. Which is ironic since, to me, a 138-minute movie where Tilda Swinton is acting up a storm in every single scene as someone mysterious and confounding, and quite possibly despicable, is like the best imaginable sales pitch. In my world, that's a Spider-Man, maybe even a Spider-Man 2; one can barely imagine it missing.

Thank goodness I only skimmed Filmbrain's review, even before I had any prospect of seeing the movie, since Julia turns out to brim with surprises, and not just in the narrative, though there are certainly plenty to be found there. Swinton, front and center in every sequence, begins the movie sozzled and polymorphously perverse in an L.A. club, with gold glitter in her long fake eyelashes and a rosehip-colored bra obtruding gracelessly from her bottle-green sequined party dress. She toasts raucously to Sam Moore's "Shop Around" and hoists a strong, soldierish arm to "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," barely aware of where she is or who she's with but sunk into the harsh, bruising thump of Eurythmic percussion. No one has ever asked Swinton to play a sexpot or a floozy before, and aside from that scabrous barfly she offered to John Maybury's Love Is the Devil, where her Artaudian grimace made her almost as unrecognizable as did Maybury's distorting lenses, she's never been high or drunk on anything stronger than that Turkish wine in Orlando. Within the first ten minutes of Julia, though, her facial tics framed by wavy red tresses and her consciousness of surroundings rolling in and out like a vodka tide, Swinton establishes a persona that's half peak-period Gena Rowlands and half Lindsay Lohan in her pantyless-in-the-Viper-Room era. For an actress who has repudiated any compulsion toward live theater and has always thrived amid tight close-up and stylized lighting schemes, Swinton seems almost recklessly willing to wager the whole film on a highly theatrical, full-body performance; the thrill of seeing her cut loose into a wholly unexpected role, defined by unprecedented physical and structural demands (at least for her), carries us through some early moments that are almost fluorescently lurid and arguably overplayed: Julia waking up in the backseat of some dickhead's luxury car, Julia losing a job that she can barely even name, Julia sauntering into and swiftly out of an AA meeting where her spiffy violet coat and her palpable, free-floating contempt set her apart from all but her most idiotically solicitious peers.

Julia appears primed at this point to furnish an essentially familiar parable of the shaming and taming of a very wild woman, though the ferocity of Swinton's playing and the thrumming anxieties of the handheld photography both imply a movie that will not go softly into anyone's 12 steps. Alternatively, though without the crucible of cross-cultural crisis, the movie announces its candidacy for a Head-On-style submersion into uncontained volatility, though it is already hard to imagine who Zonca could devise to confront Swinton's Julia with the possibility of a match. What I didn't see coming, again because I hadn't read the reviews, was that Julia had a kidnapping, a murder, and an attempted double-cross looming just around the corner, calibrated somehow to take the movie down a new, careening track while keeping utterly of a piece with Julia's heedless arrogance and her grandiose denials of reality. Over the course of these developments, it became fully clear that those Rowlands valences in Swinton's performance choices were not an accident, and that Julia was somehow Cassavetes' Gloria, spiked with a much scarier sense of spontaneity and pervasive danger, and forced into the back-end of audience sympathy: while Rowlands played a rough-and-tumble moll who somehow becomes the ward and protector of a Latino kid targeted by gangsters she already knows, Julia finds Swinton abducting the half-Mexican son of a deranged neighbor and milking his tycoon grandfather for two million dollars' ransom while waving a pistol right in the poor kid's face. Just how crazy is Julia, and for that matter, just how crazy is Zonca? How much does he expect his audience to tolerate, especially after she hauls Tom, her young and terrified charge, into a roadside Bates Motel, hog-ties him to a radiator pipe, throws some tape over his mouth, and—with a mordant, absurdist humor that both actress and director seem fiercely committed to—feeds him some sleeping pills from her own purse so she can go scout the area for some fast-food burgers and some booze?

Julia is never for one second an easy picture. In fact, for every second of its 138 minutes, it's a profoundly uneasy picture, but the near-capacity audience with whom I watched it was clearly absorbed into the film's insolent rhythms and its hubristic insistence on delving ever further into its 360º profile of its unspeakable protagonist, rather than adopting any moral insulation from her jet-black jokes or her outrageous impulses. Julia runs on and elicits for its audience that same euphoria of moment-by-moment revelation currently exhibited in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, where we're never sure if we're prowling around a triumphal celebration of dysfunctional resilience or, less forgivingly, a conflagration of ill tempers and evasive blameshifters. The seminal difference is that Julia offers nothing like the warm, parti-colored quilt of musical energy that Demme keeps wrapping around his movie, sometimes as counterpoint to his enervated characters and sometimes as a compensating apology for them. The only sources of comfort in Julia are the kind of throat-catching laughs that you often find in a Martin McDonagh play, one of the few dramatic universes where you might find, as you do here, a spoiled and over-the-hill partygoer who wears knee-high leather boots and a dress with a Russian firebird print as the accoutrements for a kidnapping, plus or minus a black plastic mask that the boy's schizophrenic mother has offered as a dramatic accent. It is as funny watching Swinton tremble and retreat from this mother's evident looniness as it is perplexing and confrontational to watch her accept this woman's instructions and embellish them with her own cynical ploys for a bigger payday.

The preservation of character specificity and the devil-may-care extraction of macabre humor from such a pitiless scenario are pretty transfixing stuff, but they wouldn't be ample reward for the film's stark demands on its audience if Julia didn't radiate the feeling that Zonca and Swinton are placing even heavier demands on their own artistic resources. Rather than mime the Cassavetes style, an agenda that has sunk many more films than it has enlivened, Zonca expands on the street-realist immediacy of The Dreamlife of Angels, so that outlandish behavior is almost always contextualized by affectingly framed landscapes and by persuasive envelopes of behavioral reality: in bars, in a bus terminal, in the home of Julia's one stalwart friend, a recovering alcoholic named Mitch (Saul Rubinek) who obviously fails in his early attempts to keep Julia's life from riding off its rails but who seems as addicted to trying to save her as she is addicted to disappointing him and laying waste to herself. Meanwhile, discrete or semi-discrete passages of the film wrangle with their own ante-upping constraints: getting Swinton to communicate her character with a mask over her face for a good 20 minutes; dramatizing the overall strategy as well as the impulsive recalculating of tactics during the actual abduction scene, and preserving a thick, engaging sense of suspense despite the entire premise that the plans don't make sense, the aims are repulsive, and the exit strategy is all but non-existent; carefully keeping crucial objects out of frame and pivotal deliberations out of the script, all in the service of the film's key conceit of staying in Julia's immediate orbit, and all without violating its primary illusion of over-the-shoulder realism; opening up a space for a grudging understanding and a bracing environment of kid-to-adult honesty between Julia and Tom, without sentimentalizing their relationship (it isn't a "bond") and without telegraphing where this bizarre movie is headed.

About two-thirds of the way in, in flight from some immigration police and discombobulated by hunger, fatigue, and several amassed catastrophes that I won't name, Julia plows her stolen car and her unbuckled hostage straight through the corrugated-iron wall that divides the California desert from the Mexican Other-world, and the film is suddenly—not for the first time—a new film. What happens in Mexico, to include the intensification of existing problems and the accumulation of new characters and conflicts, plus the onset of a creamy, morning-light intimacy between Julia and Tom that is almost as discomfiting as the previous terms of their acquaintance, probably comprises the movie's biggest gambit. Lots of audiences will become skeptical of Julia during these passages if they haven't already, presuming that "lots of audiences" ever get to see Julia at all. I couldn't get too interested in clucking at the full-force exaggeration of thuggery and violence or in debating whether Julia's prodigious coping mechanisms—honed, no doubt, by decades of listless living and the dangers she surely invited on herself—would actually extend so far in this brand-new environment, saturated by a language she doesn't know and with ever-fewer reasons for the villains who want what she's got to keep her alive. But have I done an adequate job of conveying what a living, propulsive, distinctive, and transfixing movie Julia is? How boldly it ventures into mapless terrain, how tirelessly it presents us with tequila shots of irony, horror, comedy, and allegory without settling comfortably into any of these tastes? How it gratifies the audience who's looking for Cassavetes Redux, which is also Cassavetes for a new epoch and in a world greatly changed, without implying to the non-cinephiles in the audience that they're missing anything?

Compared to Frozen River and Turn the River, two recent and semi-satisfying portraits of women in beaten-down American borderzones who get caught up and brought up short doing precisely what they shouldn't be doing, Julia is an amplification of enormous proportions, with a technical mastery at its disposal that the Sundance set can rarely approach (I haven't even commented on the inventive and menacing sound design). Zonca also raises the degree of thematic difficulty by dint of the fact that Julia is much less willing than the River movies are to imply that anything Julia does is what we might do if faced with the same hardscrabble, cold-wind conditions. When the movie finally reaches its end—inevitably resistant to tying up all of its own threads—the barely contained chaos of one woman's life has been exchanged for a greater, more frightening entropy of morals and of circumstance, as though Julia has parachuted out of one kamikaze aircraft and landed herself, plus some terrorized acquaintances, on the wing of another one as it speeds toward the ground. Whether anyone can survive this plunge, or why on earth anyone's still laughing as the end draws ever nearer, are unavoidable but unanswerable questions. The film has the focused derangement of a suicide bomber, committed to a cause that is comparably inscrutable and equally mad, but I for one am elated to see such brazenness, such mystery, and such crazy, highwire ambition back in the movie theater. Grade: A–

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