20 November 2009

The Decade List: Julia (2008)

Julia – dir. Erick Zonca

[Edited from a previous “defense” of Julia, which was written before a number of US critics got on board with the film]

Over the past ten years, a number of films have showcased the many talents of Tilda Swinton, whose uncanny screen presence can’t really be likened to anyone else working today. Other than maybe Asia Argento, I can think of no other actor who garnered what one might call a “cult following,” a status infrequently reserved for thespians. Granted, the gay community has often championed actors (or, more accurately, actresses) that most straight people just don’t “get” (examples of which include Bernadette Peters, Gina Gershon, Maria Montez in hindsight), and during the 1990s, it was the gays who made up the cult of Tilda, thanks to her involvement with Derek Jarman and her notable turns in queer flicks like Orlando, Female Perversions and Love Is the Devil. While the cult has certainly expanded, its core members have remained persistent.

The cult of Tilda began multiplying somewhere around The Deep End, a relentlessly mediocre film only to be remembered as the film that introduced the mainstream arthouse crowd to Swinton’s “strange powers.” From there, Swinton showed up in a number of minor roles in a range of lousy Hollywood productions (Vanilla Sky, The Chronicles of Narnia, Constantine) and notable, acclaimed features by independent cinema darlings (Adaptation., Broken Flowers), none of which provided her with enough screen time to truly radiate. The three films that placed her at the center (Teknolust, Young Adam, Stephanie Daley) were only remarkable as a result of the directors’ realization of an unyielding truth: the more Tilda, the better. That Swinton would win an Oscar for a supporting role in Michael Clayton says nothing of that truth, for director Tony Gilroy gave Swinton the best platform of the “Aughts” to shine in an auxiliary form (at least until Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control). Though fans started accumulating through the years without sacrificing its founding members, that Oscar win would become the benchmark for the cult of Tilda, the moment where both Hollywood and the movie-going public finally caught up.

Lynn Hershman-Leeson may have had the right idea giving us not one, but four Tildas in Teknolust, but I’m sticking with Erick Zonca’s Julia as the zenith of Swinton’s twenty-first century output. After a nine-year hiatus following Le petit voleur, Zonca returned to the world of filmmaking with his first English-language picture, a loose remake of John Cassavetes’ Gloria with Swinton in the Gena Rowlands role. On the surface, Julia and The Deep End have quite a few commonalities. Both films rest their ample plot contrivances on Swinton’s shoulders as she barrels through ethically gray domains. On a critical level however, Zonca succeeds where Scott McGehee and David Siegel fail. Julia exudes an intensity that The Deep End severely lacks, and that intensity never falters during the film’s two-and-a-half hours, even if Zonca takes it into the realms of the highly implausible. Though to be fair, Julia isn’t any more illogical than its Hollywood equivalents, but I suppose the film’s built-in “prestige” makes critics remark on this more than something like Flightplan.

What really makes Julia undoubtedly superior to The Deep End is the focus Zonca gives his film. The camera (operated by Yorick Le Saux, a frequent collaborator of Olivier Assayas and François Ozon) hardly ever leaves Swinton’s Julia; in fact, there isn’t a single scene in the film that ever pushes her aside. It may be hard to remember that Swinton’s role of a modest suburban mother in The Deep End was a radical role choice for her at the time, but it’s pretty hard to think of a more vibrant character Swinton has produced for the screen than Julia Harris, an alcoholic, opportunistic floozy who gets in over her head with an ill-fated kidnapping scheme. It’s a loud performance, but it’s wholly without vanity, from lying on a stranger’s bed in a drunken haze with her tit hanging out to recklessly tossing about the ten-year-old boy (Aidan Gould) she kidnaps.

Like the film itself, believability is not paramount when appreciating Swinton’s performance. Taking Sally Potter’s Orlando as the easiest indicator of such, there’s never a moment where you buy Swinton, despite her androgynous features, as the masculine half of a French boy who turns into a woman midway through the film. It’s what she brings out in her performance that’s so uncanny. She exudes a rare classiness in each of her delicate performances, no matter how rough around the edges she may look, something that seems both long-forgotten and new. Even at Julia’s most belligerent, Swinton never drops her put-on American accent, and yet it’s still an accent that doesn’t sound terribly authentic. And again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s Swinton’s glances and delivery and the way she moves herself through the film that is so stellar. Whereas an actress like Naomi Watts, who seems to seek out roles that allow her to showcase her impressive crying/snotting abilities, Swinton is consistently surprising, never allowing the grittiness and possible familiarity to run stale.

The word “fearless” is one I’ve read several times to describe Swinton, and it’s certainly appropriate. In Julia, Swinton finds the core of this woman, as dark and unlikable as it may be, and vehemently brings her to life on the screen. A virile presence like Swinton’s makes it difficult to believe that she doesn’t really consider her an “actor,” but it’d be more difficult to imagine a trained “actor” to produce the sort of raw power Swinton does with nearly every single performance.

With: Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Saul Rubinek, Bruno Bichir, Kate del Castillo, Jude Ciccolella, Horacio Garcia Rojas, Kevin Kilner, Eugene Byrd, John Bellucci
Screenplay: Erick Zonca, Aude Py
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Pollard Berrier, Darius Keeler
Country of Origin: France/USA/Mexico/Belgium
US Distributor: Magnolia

Premiere: 9 February 2008 (Berlin International Film Festival)
US Premiere: 4 October 2008 (Woodstock Film Festival)


teabag central said...

It's now four days (GMT) without a posting. Are you OK, Joe?

Joe said...

I appreciate the concern, teabag, but I've been swamped with the local festival, which ended on Sunday -- and combined with a bit of expected seasonal depression, I haven't had much time/inspiration for writing. That should hopefully change tonight. Though I haven't been writing, I have been watching lots of films -- the first batch of which I'm starting writing on now :)

teabag central said...

Glad you're back.

teabag central said...

If you live in London then this maybe of interest

Tilda Swinton Q&A