MIDWAY : A woman in crisis

Tilda Swinton famously became a living, breathing installation in Cornelia Parker’s 1995 artwork The Maybe, asleep in a glass case. Since her big Hollywood breakthrough opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach in 2000, I can hardly ever see this beautiful, statuesque, fiercely intelligent actor in any film without thinking that some kind of “installation” effect has been achieved yet again. Everything about her is bold and striking — if sometimes a little unreal.

She plays the lead in Julia, the first English-language film from Erick Zonca, the French director still best known for his debut 1998 movie The Dreamlife of Angels. It is a gritty portrait of a woman in crisis, set in California and evidently inspired by Cassavetes. Julia is established right away in a bar scene as out of control: drinking, smoking, having promiscuous sex outside in the car park with married men, whose morning-after self-hate briefly holds up to Julia a mirror to show what her life has become.

Her character is supposed to be a chronic alcoholic, a loser, liable to drag down anyone who gets tangled up in her radioactive mess of a life.

Like Cate Blanchett, Swinton always looks just too superbly authoritative and grand for this sort of role, yet she certainly brings to it her distinctive, interplanetary charisma. At her most desperate for money, Julia meets Elena (Kate del Castillo) at an AA meeting. Elena offers her cash to help kidnap her own child from the wealthy grandfather who gained custody when Elena messed up her own life with drink.

Julia agrees, but has a secret plan of her own: she will herself kidnap the kid away from Elena for some of this wealthy grandfather’s cash, and so sets about buying a gun. Kidnapping and endangering the life of an innocent child brings Julia to the brink of a moral abyss — and yet could a Stockholm-syndrome attachment to her victim create redemption for her? I’m not sure. Zonca has put together an ambitious and forthright story, but Swinton’s contribution looks more like an actressy impersonation than a performance, and indeed Zonca’s film itself looks like a European facsimile of Americana. Though impressive in some ways, the movie is straining too hard for its effects.