February 7, 2010By Tom RidgwayArchive

Split Personality

Julia (Tilda Swinton): aging goodtime girl, serious alcoholic and marvellously self-destructive.
March 12, 2008

Typical. You wait 10 years for a new Erick Zonca movie and then five come along at once. Unfortunately, the director of The Dreamlife of Angels decided to put all five in the same film, which he then called Julia. Recently in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, Julia makes you think that Zonca should really make a film every two years rather than waiting until his head is so full of ideas that he’s obliged to put them all in one.

A conscious tribute to John Cassavetes’ Gloria (at least to begin with), the film opens in a nightclub with a great scene of visual and psychological acuity and brevity, in which we meet Julia (Tilda Swinton). It’s shot with a handheld camera that gets right into the action and in the process tells all we need to know about Julia: aging goodtime girl, serious alcoholic and marvellously self-destructive.

We then follow her as she grudgingly attends an AA meeting, where she meets Elena (Kate del Castillo), a slightly deranged fellow alcoholic who has a plan to kidnap her son back from his filthy rich grandfather/guardian. For some reason – it’s never satisfactorily explained why – Julia decides to carry out the plan on her own, ends up killing the child’s carer and is forced to flee.

By this time you’re in (slightly twisted) lovers-on-the-run territory (think Badlands) and by the time Julia ends just under two hours later in Mexico, you have watched bits of a thriller, an “adult/child bonding” drama and the foreigner lost abroad genre, among others. (Rumor has it that the original cut ran over three hours; with the released version coming in at 138 minutes, you wonder how many other genres Zonca might have managed to cram into the missing 40 minutes.)

In among all these films, Julia is packed full of interesting, intelligently handled ideas about family, friendship and salvation. And, as it passes from Los Angeles to the desert to the mean streets of Tijuana, it looks great, too. (Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography gives us some stunning scenes; a nighttime chase in the desert that ends up with Julia driving her car through the border wall into Mexico is fabulous.)

Yet Julia is terribly undermined because it changes tone so dramatically and so often that it all ends up feeling rather silly. You begin trying to guess which genre or story twist Zonca will introduce next and after about 90 minutes you begin laughing at it, rather than with it. At a certain point you also begin to feel an overwhelming desire to scream at the screen: For the love of God, will somebody just pay the damned ransom?

Which is a shame because Julia contains an extraordinary performance from Tilda Swinton as the eponymous “heroine” (and a host of good supporting roles). Swinton appears in virtually every frame, and her portrait of self-destructive self-loathing will be hard to beat this year (or any other). As the film goes genre swapping, she manages to keep Julia afloat by sticking hard and fast to the role, riding roughshod over the film and her character’s inconsistencies and tonal switchbacks. Swinton makes Julia believable and true; it’s just a shame that Zonca seemed hellbent on doing exactly the opposite. At the end of Julia, you can’t fault the way things are done, you just wonder why they were done.

Tom Ridgway

© 2008 Paris Update

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