The dreamlife of devils: Tilda Swinton sports an all new look in Erick Zonca's Julia.

An Ample Display of Tilda Swinton's Edge

Dennis Harvey July 10, 2009

It may be a measure of the dopey levels general pop culture discourse has sunk to that when Tilda Swinton is noted by your average fan types—as she’s begun to be, having recently infiltrated Hollywood mainstream cinema—the subject of concern is usually her appearance. Physically striking, charismatic and a remarkable actress, Tilda Swinton isn’t going anywhere but farther into the general consciousness.

Of course she’s still going to be making eccentric art and even experimental films, because that is her preferred thing. But now, she’s pals with people like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, the Coen Brothers and Disney, Inc., thus leading her in directions that not long ago would have seemed highly improbable—like being in The Chronicles of Narnia movies or winning an Oscar as a midwestern corporate tool in Michael Clayton.

For all that, there’s still an edge of riskiness to Swinton that goes back to her performing roots way off the popular-culture grid. It’s amply on display in Julia, the new film by French director Erick Zonca (who made a splash in 1998 with The Dreamlife of Angels).

It was never improbable that Tilda Swinton might be a gay man’s best friend—Derek Jarman being the most famous actual one—but before Julia, she’d never really seemed, you know…camp.

Julia, playing the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki this week, is reminiscent of Gloria, the late John Cassavetes’ 1980 vehicle for wife Gena Rowlands (forget the bad Sharon Stone remake) in which she played a blowsy gangster’s moll who takes a young boy on the lam to protect him from hit men.

Yes, there are similarities. But as incarnated by Swinton, Julia Harris’s party-girl surface is even trashier, and her maternal instincts buried deeper. What’s more, she’s the kid’s real problem—an alcoholic nut who’s kidnapped a rich man’s grandchild for ransom when her booze-soaked, backseat-love-spattered long nights finally get her fired from the office job she neglects as a result. (She’s also neglected to pay her rent, another reason to seek a quick fix.)

Swinton spent her first decade in film working almost exclusively (Sally Potter’s Orlando the major exception) with late gay British auteur Derek Jarman. His variably avant-garde visions occasionally cast her as a gorgon—notably man-lovin’ Edward II’s appalled consort. Another Jarman protegee, John Maybury, let her sink viperous teeth into another supporting monster, one of painter Francis Bacon’s vicious social circle in Love is the Devil.

But mostly she’s played less extreme characters. You might recall Benjamin Button’s introduction to sex, a protective Lake Tahoe mom in The Deep End, The Beach’s island Earth Mama, a judge investigating a refugee Nazi war criminal in The Statement and several roles (sometimes within one movie) for S.F.’s own Lynn Hershman-Leeson. Her comic turn in the Coens’ Burn After Reading was prickly, yet not a figure you’d instinctively cross the street to avoid.

Oh, but Julia Harris is. When we first see her, Swinton is unrecognizable—spangly false eyelashes, spangly dress, spangly long earrings, heavy makeup, big hair, somehow taller than before. (Is it the teetering on cha-cha heels?). She’s laughing like a hyena and cussing like a sailor, throwing herself at a new co-worker with whom she wakes up hungover the next morning in a club’s back alley. (It’s worth noting her conquest is played by John Bellucci, who some years ago was a wonderful Bay Area stage actor.)

When Julia grudgingly goes to an AA meeting, she’s out the door again in minutes, muttering "Bullshit." Once she grabs her kid, she treats him appallingly—not intentionally, but because she’s full of bad ideas, frequently drunk and just doesn’t know any better. She’s the person most likely to neglect an indoor cactus to death.

At 144 minutes, Julia has some longeurs, but it’s Swinton’s show, and she will not let your attention wander without soon throttling it back into focus. This is a performance worthy of Shelley Winters, Holly Woodlawn or closing night at Trannyshack, and don’t doubt this particular actress is familiar with all of the above. (Which is not something you can say about many Oscar winners.)

Was this first English-language feature by Zonca originally planned to stray so far from the director/cowriter’s prior gritty realism? Or did his star gleefully, singlehandedly drag (ahem) it there? Who knows. But if the screen resume of Tilda Swinton to date has been largely marked by intelligence, precision and elegance, unpredictability, then her range is only enhanced by this one-woman joyride into the sloppy side of humanity.