A ragged alcoholic (Tilda Swinton) named Julia, whose life consists of partying and having one-night stands with married men, has a fellow addict for a neighbor. One day at AA, the two meet and the seemingly mentally unstable woman tells of an outlandish plan she has she wants Julia's help with. Her son is in the custody of his grandfather and she isn't allowed to see him. As we see her talk, we find out why: she's shaky, her eyes and mouth fritter every which way, it looks like she is very mentally ill. She wants Julia to help her kidnap the boy and then they will go to her grand house in Mexico—apparently she has a lot of money she is willing to give Julia for the favor. Julia has lost her job and can't make rent; she's basically finished as a functioning human being. What she plans on herself is to steal the kid so she can blackmail the mother.
So begins the improbable plot of Erick Zonca's Julia. You could even call it high-concept. In fact, the director wants you to. Julia will take the child—and the wrecked booze hound and the little boy will bond. Sounds like a typical Hollywood film where the characters learn from one another. But this movie is almost a deconstruction of that. It's film school thesis is telling highly contrived Hollywood films—what you and I who live here call regular movies—in a European way. Which means exposing their artificiality.
The film is done in realism and melodrama, naturalism and Hollywood comedy. Those melding genres and styles produce tonal discordance. I personally love tonal discordance. We see a very damaged women with raccoon eyes and unkempt hair self destruct. That's the start of the movie. Her desperation is palpable. Of course it helps when it's being conveyed by the remarkable Tilda Swinton, who totally transforms from her usual "self" of elegant and ethereal upper class British woman who likes to usually do arty projects. Her casting is one indication that the film makers are not doing a usual thriller but practicing irony. Her character could just as easily be a crack whore, but it's only the bottle she covets. In the club she frequents, the music is Eurythmics Sweet Dreams. "Some of them want to use you/Some of them want to be used by you."
This is the theme of the film. Julia is an alcoholic because nobody except for her sponsor (Saul Rubinek) cares for her. The men in her life and who she casually hooks up with see her as an easy lay. They are all enablers. And so in order to survive Julia has to become one too, taking advantage of the people more vulnerable than she lower down on the power scale: an unstable mother she plans on robbing and her innocent 7 or 8 year old son, whom she will kidnap and terrorize. Like pointing a gun at his head, binding his mouth with tape and his arms and legs with rope. These are very disturbing scenes. But, at the same time, or a little later, the comedy of the interaction comes through: Julia is a completely inept kidnapper. She snarks at the kid and he calls her an "idiot." It's like any odd couple sitcom. But done is such a realistic way that those scenes are jarring. Can a movie be serious and silly at the same time—can it honor psychological and social realism while letting you see blatant manipulation? That tension filled combination is the subject of the movie.
And the plot only grows more and more contrived and outlandish, like a Hollywood film would. This farrago may be an old hat genre among serious film makers but I hadn't recently encountered it myself. Usually foreign films are Hollywoodized and made anodyne for the remake, losing whatever real life they depicted. Or foreign films done by foreign directors import Hollywood sentimentality and tidy plot resolutions to their films, losing whatever real life they would have depicted. But Julia and the recent German Barbara try to meld European sensibilities and film making with Hollywood constructs. In this film, for example, there is very spare use, if at all, of emotionally manipulative music. It's shot like Alfonso Cuaron's Y U Mama Tambien, with tight lingering closeups and camera movement that wanders in and out of rooms letting us see the squalor of these peoples lives. There is thematic use of one of Tilda Swinton's topless breasts, with one scene having the kid snuggle up against her like he would his mother, looking directly at it (a shot I bet no American film would dare to do because of prurient hangups, never mind that the scene is natural). Yet the plot is not what a art house European audience would be used to. So I chose to believe that it was criticizing and subverting the insularity and commercialism of Hollywood movie making, right up to the modernist ending.
But besides that intellectual point, it's a great movie as a movie. Swinton is magnificent, as she usually is. The twists and turns—another staple of Hollywood—come out of the blue. Behind the showy plot, there is a real look at this disintegrating woman—a look at her loneliness and pain and ego and narcissism. Perhaps that's the value of hybrid projects like this. If it's common wisdom that Hollywood does genre plots well while ignoring real life and humanity, and that the rest of the world is an oasis for Americans tired of that who want human drama again, then this movie, uneasily by design, but always in a fascinating way, combines the two.