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  • TBC
  • Crime, Drama
  • 2008
  • 144 mins




French director Erick Zonca has crafted a tale of alcoholism, abduction and alienation in LA and across the border. Tilda Swinton stars


Make a movie about an aging alcoholic, and you ought to have a tragic drama, like Le Feu Follet, Trees Lounge or Factotum. Insert such a washout character into the middle of a kidnapping scam, and you ought to have a comedy of errors (Fargo, Burn After Reading). Yet while Julia, the latest film by Erick Zonca (La Vie Révée Des Anges), is certainly focused upon a desperate dipsomaniac-turned-child abductor, it's not so easy to pin down. One thing is for sure, though: with very few laughs to show, this is no Coens-style comic caper.

Thanks to her quick wits and compulsive lying, Julia (Swinton) has been just about getting away with her drinking problem for years - but now, at 40, with her schtick starting to pall, her job lost and her rent unpaid, a sense of desperation is setting in.

Sent by her old friend (and erstwhile alcoholic) Mitch (Rubinek) to an AA meeting, Julia meets Elena (Del Castillo), a younger, if similarly desperate Mexican woman who turns to Julia for help in a clearly deluded scheme to kidnap her own estranged son, eight-year-old Tom (Gould). Smelling money, Julia agrees, even if she has her own angle on the plot. When things inevitably spin out of control, Julia finds herself doing what she always does - drinking on the job, thinking on her feet, and burning all her bridges. She does not, however, quite realise what effect Tom's continued presence will have on her.

Asked in one scene what her name is, Julia replies "Gloria" - and sure enough, it is easy to see shades of John Cassavetes' Gloria (1980) in this older dame growing ever more protective of the boy in her care.

Swinton's Julia, however, does not so much rescue her young ward from danger as place him in the line of fire herself, abducting him at gunpoint, repeatedly drugging him, and at one point even abandoning him in the desert, before ultimately exposing him to criminals whose desperation and venality are equal only to her own. She is a difficult character to like, yet Swinton, in a wonderfully honest performance, presents her, flaws and all, as a vulnerable and helpless figure, always worthy of our attention and often of our sympathies. At a certain level Julia believes her own lies, and Swinton makes us want to believe them as well.

If Julia opens with a series of sequences in which its protagonist is shown waking up from a long night's partying, unsure exactly where she is, how she got there or where there is to go next, then by the time the film has ended that is exactly the way the viewer will feel too. Director Zonca lulls us into a false sense of familiarity with his unflinching (if non-judgemental) portrait of a falling woman, before unexpectedly shifting the location, twisting the plot and swinging the mood beyond all recognition, until finally we are, like Julia herself, left marooned between the roads that are more usually travelled.

Here the borders crossed are generic as much as geographic, with Julia proving to be all at once a dramatic character study, a downbeat social drama and a riveting crime thriller. Even as the film celebrates Julia for her resilience, ingenuity and emerging sense of responsibility, at the same time it shows her spiralling ever further downwards (and taking an innocent young boy along with her) due to her own ill-conceived and self-destructive actions, mostly inspired by the bottom end of a vodka bottle.

It's compelling all right - and despite the somewhat forbidding duration, Swinton makes Julia mesmerising to watch throughout, while Zonca's furious handling of tension ensures that there are always plenty of external threats to match the internal ones posed by Julia herself. It all culminates in a climax of unbearable suspense, a final, deluded line that rather brilliantly sidesteps the cliché of a neatly sentimental conclusion, and then the perfect Barry Adamson song over the closing credits to leave the right tone of noirish delirium. When it is all over, you will need a stiff drink.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Gastòn Peterson, Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Bruno Bichir, Kevin Kilner, Saul Rubinek, Kate Del Castillo, Horacio Garcia Rojas, Jude Ciccolella, Mauricio Moreno
  • Director: Erick Zonca
  • Screen Writer: Py Py, Erick Zonca
  • Writer (Story): Camille Natta, Michael Collins
  • Producer: François Marquis, Bertrand Faivre
  • Photographer: Yorick Le Saux
  • Composer: Pollard Berrier, Darius Keeler

In a nutshell

It is no easier to warm to Zonca's film than to its central character - but it is impossible to take your eyes off either. Amoral, at times brutal, and full of surprises, this film will make you believe that the golden age of 1970s character-driven dramas never came to an end.

by Anton Bitel

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