At its highest, Erick Zonca’s Julia gave me the sensation of being caught on a whirling carousel (perhaps like the one in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train?) of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses—a roundelay of wheeling and dealing by the film’s leading lady, Tilda Swinton, as a roaring alcoholic turned incompetent kidnapper. The movie and the actress reach a kind of apotheosis of hustling, of thinking on one’s feet, in a sequence set in a grimy bathroom. There amid the stalls and the formidably trashed urinals, Swinton’s Julia—held at gunpoint—simultaneously tries to protect someone, extricate herself from a jam, and incriminate yet another guest in this crowded lavatory by playing off the paranoid suspicions of the assembled thugs, as if criminal pathology were a scale of musical notes and she their virtuosic interpreter.
Swinton—I should admit here that I’ve never much cared for her as a performer; some twelve or thirteen years ago, I walked out on Female Perversions with a four-Excedrin headache and have mostly dodged her ever since—draws much of Julia’s besotted charm from Gena Rowlands’s repertoire. Much has been made elsewhere over Zonca’s homage to the Cassavetes film Gloria, yet there are bits of other Cassavetes/Rowlands collaborations woven into Swinton’s portrayal, bits of Mabel from A Woman Under the Influence (although Julia is an infinitely more sexed-up creation) and also from—very possibly mostly from—Sarah Lawson in Love Streams. Like Rowlands’s Sarah, Swinton’s Julia has an emphatically odd way when she’s bluffing, which is nearly all of the time, of stressing certain turns of phrase. The trills, the pauses, the lurking insinuation that seems to suggest, “You mean you didn’t know? Whaddya, kidding me?” all stem from Rowlands’s own (patented, I would think) underlining. When Julia slurringly addresses Tom, the curly-haired ten-year-old whom she’s abducted, by saying, “Your…grandfather,” it’s as if, with her misplaced vampishness and affectation of straightforwardness, she’s really telling somebody something.
Earlier in the film, Julia has a handful of peculiar comic interludes with Tom’s mother, Elena, a severely mentally ill Mexicana, a woman so far gone that she fails to notice what a nasty, mean-spirited, falling-down drunk her neighbor Julia is. Julia, for her part, exudes no awareness of Elena’s tenuous hold on real life. The two meet at an AA meeting, and Julia, in all likelihood, mistakes Elena’s perpetually in place wide smile as evidence of the woman’s sappy friendliness and not as the mask of insanity it so clearly is. Stretched out in hung-over haze on Elena’s sofa, Julia, who attends AA solely at her sponsor’s hectoring insistence, delights in informing Elena that she considers the meetings to be “obscene.” This might have been the first moment where the movie perked up for me; it was definitely the first (though not the last) instance in Zonca and Aude Py’s mordant dialogue at which I laughed out loud. Deriding the “prayers, women lamenting” as too creepy for her taste, Julia’s inflections conjure memories of Rowlands. Is Swinton’s performance a great one? It’s entertaining, it’s fun; she fully gripped my attention even in the movie’s scuzziest, most distasteful passages. Certainly, she borrows from the best sources. And the movie, which initially appears to be about two women of different races embroiling themselves in an illegal venture for some much-needed cash, at times resembles an extraordinarily perverse remake of Frozen River. As Elena, the other half of this duo, Kate del Castillo never once let’s you see her acting. With her slightly halting speech; her lengthy, raven hair that’s voluptuous in spite of being let go; the white, toothsome smile that contrasts to her dark skin; the way she lopes about just so (unconfident in her medicated joy) in a manner that mars her physical comeliness—Del Castillo renders this damned soul in piercingly “real” hues. It’s a disappointment that Elena ends up off-screen for much of the proceedings. Although, here, too, her exit scene (the dropping of the mask) leads to one of the most evocative edits in the entire film: Elena, slapped in the face by Julia (over money), looks as if she could lunge at Julia, destroy her. Zonca abruptly cuts away to a shot of Julia, alone, in her natural habitat, a bar, seated at the counter and drinking. Zonca holds the shot briefly, the screen bathed as though a red gel were over the lens.
Aside from the Cassavetes allusions, much has also been written about the harshness of the first few motel room scenes between Julia and Tom. While it’s undoubtedly shocking to see a child treated so cruelly, with a gun pointed to his head, I will venture that the critics most up in arms over these sequences most likely have an excess of money in their bank accounts. Part of what makes Zonca’s approach work so splendidly lies in his empathy with what the poor and the bedraggled in American society are forced into by the failures of capitalism. There are newspaper stories on this kind of misguided behavior quite frequently; a recent one had to do with a father who deliberately tainted a can of Campbell’s soup, poisoned his children by feeding it to them, then tried to sue Campbell’s. Zonca doesn’t regard Julia’s duct-taping and tying up of Tom sensationally; nor do these moments tip over into Coen Brothers, Raising Arizona-esque hatefulness, although at times the film does seem to be in peril of falling into precisely that craven sort of rabbits’ hole. Miraculously, it never does. And yet…and yet, in the midst of all this realism (never milked for “drama”), there’s room for humor, a humor that wells up organically once two people get past being strangers and get to know each other. Zonca doesn’t deny this either, the way a lesser filmmaker inevitably would. His shifts into comic tone encompass a memorable, wide-angle vista of the desert, a backdrop against which the victim, fed up with his kidnapper’s ineptitude, can defiantly scream, without fear of reprisal, “Kiss my butt, you idiot!” Aidan Gould, as Tom, could have descended into false wisdom, as the dynamics evolve between victim and victimizer, yet this, too, is sidestepped. The young actor appropriately retains his aura of innocence, whether frightened or bemused, throughout.
The movie does go on too long for what Zonca has to say. I’ve seen two running times listed: 138 minutes and 144. I would swear I saw the longer version. And the ending, unlike what Cassavetes devised for Gloria, fails to satisfy. Los Angeles has never looked uglier on film, though I consider that a compliment to cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, who captures the punishing, blinding white sunlight of an LA morning-after in the full bloom of its exposed horror. Le Saux achieves a couple of magic moments as well, softly as in a desert sunrise and softer, more radiant still in a Tijuana sunset that’s shot indoors—a red glow burnishes through the white curtains of a shrouded hotel room, enveloping its inhabitants in a rosy warmth that feels entirely earned. Last but hardly least, I’d be remiss not to single out a well-observed, visually layered sequence at a Greyhound bus terminal. An increasingly desperate Julia sits and waits and watches, trying to play it cool, and all around her are Diane Arbus-like freaks also seated and waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s funny how Swinton tries to position Julia as somehow apart from this riff-raff. The character seems to be thinking, “Thank God I’m not like these people,” and yet in the next turn of mind questioning: “Is this what I am?”
Julia, which has been making the rounds in platform release for the past month, opens June 5 in my neck of the woods at Portland’s Living Room Theatres, a place where one can and may consume alcohol as the pictures play. With its well-stocked liquor cabinet, it’s the ideal setting to steep in the soused pleasures of Miss Swinton’s company.
House contributor N.P. Thompson lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He also photo blogs at Centuries Since the Day.