Monday, May 18, 2009

Julia

Erick Zonca’s Julia is completely ridiculous, but it’s so consistent in its sense of the ridiculous, so committed to its wonky absurdities, and ultimately so grounded in genuine human need that, despite its often fantastical orientation, it demands to be taken seriously. Built around a stunningly forceful performance by Tilda Swinton as the title character, a woman who spends her nights indulging in memory-loss booze fests, waking up each morning in a strange bed with a different man, the film involves her in a harebrained kidnapping scheme, a border crossing with the feds in hot pursuit, and a second kidnapping, this time perpetrated by Mexican gangsters. The result’s an odd – and oddly satisfying - mix, a sharply observed character study - with Swinton embodying the recognizable tics of a very credible individual - crossed with a wonderfully implausible thriller narrative.

And then there’s the fact that the film’s set pieces often unfold as something like high absurdist comedy. The initial kidnapping scene, as Julia spots Tom, her pre-teen mark, playing in the lake, kills his caretaker by backing him over in her car, forces the boy into her trunk at gunpoint and sets him up at an out-of-the-way motel, is both darkly hilarious and more than a little suspenseful. Although much of the humor in this sequence results from the double-stacked convolutions of the undertaking, the laughs derive in equal measure from the sheer haphazard lunacy of Julia’s off-the-cuff decision making. Swinton’s characterization often involves switching between a tentative thinking aloud and a desperately asserted emphasis designed to cover up her essential insecurity. In the kidnapping scene she plays Julia as a woman caught up in a situation that she hasn’t thought through very clearly, forced to make snap decisions and invest these decisions with instant authority. The result is an uneasy comedy, as Julia commands the boy to drink water, swallow pills and clean the shit off his body (he’s just been locked in a trunk for hours), and the boy, sensing the uncertainty beneath the angry façade, returns a mild, sparring protest.

From there things quickly spiral out-of-control, but as the two head down to Mexico, and Julia begins negotiating a ransom with Tom's wealthy grandfather, something like a relationship develops between the two, although not enough to prevent the woman from leaving her captive tied up in the middle of the desert while she goes to negotiate some business. Until the end, Julia’s got her eyes on the prize: even after the boy’s kidnapped by Tijuana thugs, she attempts to set the negotiations on her own terms. In one second-act set piece, after coolly blowing out the brains of an unwitting informant, she infiltrates the criminal’s base and attempts to broker the release of the captive child, the scene quickly developing into a comically overheated shout-fest, its manic energy aided by Zonca and DP Yorick Le Saux’s ultra-skittery hand-held camerawork.

Only in the final moments does Julia redeem the promise of tenderness hinted at in an earlier scene in which Tom joins her in bed and wraps her in a filial embrace. (Although even this sequence is complicated by an odd sexualizing of the relationship – as one of nude-beneath-the-covers Julia’s breasts pops up and the boy stares blankly at the protrusion.) Our character, a downwardly-spiraling boozer, recently fired from her job, has nothing at the beginning of the film, save the unwanted assistance of a former alcoholic friend who forces her to attend AA meetings from which she doesn’t seem to derive any discernible benefit. And in the end, after all the convolutions of the botched robbery, she has even less, since now she can’t even return home. But in her final bit of decision making, she does at least touch on something like a buried store of humanity, so that even as she drives off to a very uncertain future and the screen dissolves into abstract blotches of primary colors, we’re left with the sense that watching her adventure was about something more than indulging in over-the-top genre kicks. But even if it weren’t, Zonca’s commitment to the sheer wonkiness of the undertaking and Swinton’s compulsively, often horrifyingly, watchable performance would be more than enough to ensure that the film remained continually worth the while of all but the most skeptical filmgoer.

***

A short piece on Ozu's Good Morning (screening today as part of BAM's Late Film series) has been posted at the L Magazine blog.

2 comments:

gina said...

Amen to all that. It was interesting, funny and beautifully acted. Not a dull moment - and I am easily bored.

Joe said...

I think Julia works despite just about everything, and it sure does make for compelling "wonkiness."