When we first see Julia Harris (Tilda Swinton), she's at the top of her game: uncountable drinks in, her bra-covered breast exposed, dancing on toddler's legs at a loud, dark party. She's happy as can be, her arms flying in the air, her eyes gelatinous, her hair and makeup overdone. Somebody asks her what she does for a living and she responds with an unnervingly dismissive cackle, sputtering her lips and fanning her hands out in front of her. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that," she offers enigmatically in a way that is perhaps intended to imply that she invented heart transplant surgery and is modest about it but that actually suggests that she's a hooker and discrete or else unemployed and embarrassed. Her response is an obnoxious bit of vague casualness intended to push the focus off of herself and onto more important matters--namely, partying.
She tries to seduce a married man--a skinny, bald lech who is somebody's boss, though presumably not her own--and she succeeds. A vertiginous camera angle shows her passed out the next morning, a sourpuss frown stretched across her dry, smacking lips. After shoving him away, she stumbles to her own car and drives home, likely still drunk. What we have seen is a chaotic, shameful mess of a night, but we sense that if her soused mind were able and willing to record memories of the event, she would likely consider it a success. And with this wild night as our introduction, we enter the unpredictable, topsy turvy world of Julia, the first American film by French-born director Erick Zonca.
What follows is what can only be described a bender of a film. Zonca's lens is a subjective one; like so many other schmaltzy melodramas, Zonca does not attempt to observe an addict under a microscope, framing the subject with coldness and judgmental distance. Zonca instead involves us in the drunken perception and the alcoholic delusion, and he does so without resorting to cheesy cinematic tricks like unfocused slow motion and droning noises. Abrupt cuts give way to unexpected scene changes like an alcoholic blacking out and then resuming consciousness. Our sense of time disappears as we acclimate to Julia's unique schedule of passing out during daylight, having drinks at sunrise, and getting serious in the middle of the night. Characters we would never trust are revealed to be her closest friends, and decisions we would never make come unthinkingly to her scrambled mind. Morality, safety, responsibility, and appropriateness become alien concepts. This is Julia's world, and we're not here to judge it. We're here to experience it.
When Julia loses her job--whatever it may be--her preachy sponsor (Saul Rubinek) pressures her to resume going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But snacking on store-bought cookies, drinking black coffee, and confessing about giving birth in a dumpster while unconscious is simply not her scene. She blows off her first meeting as well as the advances of an unhinged, clingy Mexican woman (Kate del Castillo), a nervous bird with wide eyes who reveals herself to be Julia's next door neighbor. When Julia passes out on her front yard after having a vodka tonic at six in the morning, neighbor Elena pulls her into her house for coffee and rest. Before she can regain her senses, however, Julia is asked to involve herself in a convoluted, delusional plan to kidnap Elena's eight-year-old son from his billionaire grandfather for fifty thousand dollars. This is a mere seventeen minutes into the film, and though Elena is clearly insane with nothing to back her far-fetched story except a frantic nod and some newspaper clippings, and though Julia is clearly an undependable, mean, booze-addled stranger who should never be trusted with such a precarious, difficult, and illegal operation, they both decide to make this drastic mistake together.
It's comical. It's absurd. It most certainly can only end in a disaster of massive proportions. Yet their complete inability to realize any of this makes for an involving thriller and also lends an erratic, bizarre film an air of stranger than fiction realism. Because crazy and stupid people do attempt to pull off impossible crimes every single day. Because it has no objective perspective and because its main character lacks both a moral compass and any shred of sensibility or foresight, Julia is a truly unpredictable film. Julia abounds with a rare spontaneity, a sense that anything truly could happen. Julia's survival, the survival of the innocent child she kidnaps, her success in pulling off the heist, and any blossoming of her character arc into sobriety or decency--none of these are guarantees as they are in most films. In a movie where Julia murders, breaks promises, and makes idiotic blunders, the hand of chance plays a significant role. As a result, the thrills are more edge-of-your-seat, the laughs are harder, and the emotional investment is higher.
Tilda Swinton is a joy to watch in one of the most captivating performances of 2009. A train speeding off the tracks, she encompasses all of our gravest shortcomings. Her flaws are embarrassingly transparent, but in her mind she maintains an excess of dignity. Her prospects seem abysmal, but her blind optimism drives her to act, always recklessly but often with results. Julia is not a woman who overthinks things, who worries or doubts. It's a tragic and an admirable trait, in keeping with the ambiguity of her character. We witness her lies, her double crossing, her greed, and her ruthlessness, but we also witness moments of earnestness and clarity that make one wonder if she even realizes that her lies are lies. When the kidnapped boy (Aidan Gould) asks her if she intends to kill him, she is hurt by the question and aghast at the idea, even though she's holding a loaded gun at his face when he asks her. Later, she tells the boy a number of sappy stories about how much he meant to his parents. They are lies--Julia knows nothing about the father and she has contempt for the mother (who she may have even murdered offscreen!)--but why she bothers with the lies is unclear. Is she only trying to keep the boy cool because a calm kidnapped victim is an easy kidnapped victim? Or is she trying to give a lonely, cute child some feeling of affection and importance? When she breaks her promises to him and mistreats him in the most neglectful and irresponsible of ways, she reacts to the consequences with genuine horror and concern. Is she merely upset at the near loss of her investment, or is she really remorseful for her thoughtless actions? When she tickles and caresses the boy in a rare moment of quiet tenderness, is she merely drunk and dazed or has a motherly affection stirred within her? Is she capable of any selfless acts, or is all she does guided by greed, improvised maneuvers to guarantee that she will secure two million dollars for herself?
Julia is a riveting examination of the unlikeliest of redemptions, a searing portrait of a woman who has plunged deeply into the shadowy depths of amorality. Will she sell her last shred of decency for the alluring prospect of two million dollars, or will she risk losing everything in order to prove to herself that she still has some humanity, whatever that might be worth? Erick Zonca succeeds in leaving this important question open until the very last moment of the film.
d: Erick Zonca w: Roger Bohbot, Michael Collins
(Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Kate del Castillo)