December roundup (1) : ‘Julia’ [7/10]; ‘Waltz With Bashir’ [6/10]

seen December 6th
We probably have Tilda Swinton’s Oscar win to thank for the current presence in British cinemas of two among her more offbeat recent projects: the artily turgid Bela Tarr epic The Man From London, which had (deservedly) lingered in distribution limbo since Cannes 2007, and Erick Zonca’s Julia (the director’s spectacularly belated follow-up* to The Dream Life of Angels [1998]) which was received with similarly lukewarm-to-sour notices when premiering at the Berlin Film Festival back in February.)
And the early going isn’t promising, especially given the 144-minute running-time that looms ahead. A series of self-consciously elliptical, jagged scenes introduce us to fortysomething, caustically brittle, over-the-hill good-time girl – and sometime San Diego real-estate agent – Julia (Swinton). Things don’t improve when shaky elements of plot start to slowly materialise, involving a notably implausible kidnap/extortion scheme cooked up by Julia’s mentally-unstable neighbour Elena (Kate del Castillo) – a fellow AA-attendee who’s scarily desperate to regain custody of her young son Tom (Aidan Gould) from his millionaire grandpa.
The indulgence of patient viewers is, however, eventually and amply rewarded: Julia becomes much more conventional in form and content as it progresses, but also rather more accomplished and satisfying. A convoluted series of events results in her fleeing, semi-accidentally, into Mexico (via a rather marvellous scene that sees her driving at speed through the border fence) with Tom in tow. And what then develops is an engagingly unpredictable, atmospheric, surprisingly tense thriller – albeit one that arguably skirts lazy stereotyping with regard to some of the Mexican characters – as an out-of-the-blue second kidnap forces Julia to discover her inner bad-ass, not to mention her long-suppressed maternal instincts, while incidentally “drying out” along the way.
Not very much is made of the latter development, though it’s clear that the film’s tonal development is meant to mirror its (anti-?)heroine’s progress from hedonistic inebriation and strikingly unsympathetic solipsism to responsibility-taking sobriety (though she remains, throughout, a glib, perhaps compulsive liar – a detail that adds nuance to the very final line.) Hence Zonca and Swinton’s assertion that Julia isn’t so much a film about an alcoholic, as an “alcoholic film.” It’s also a sideways hommage to John Cassavetes’ moll-and-kid cult-favourite Gloria (1980), not to mention a tribute to and showcase for its star, who’s seldom off-screen in a dream role for any challenge-embracing actor.
This is a part which makes a great virtue of Swibton’s distinctive looks and presence – not for nothing is her character described as a “giraffe” at one stage, and with her flaming-red hair, skimmed-milk skin and sprawling limbs she’s often much too much for the cramped cinema-screen to contain. Indeed, can it really be a coincidence that the last major film to bear this particular title, Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 drama, was also named after the (supporting) character played by another brilliant, British, award-laden, six-foot stick-insect?


* [correction: Zonca did Le Petit Voleur [1999] in between] 10.5.13

seen December 7th
It’s been one of the critical hits of 2008, but a wise cineaste of my acquaintance was not impressed by groundbreaking “animated documentary” Waltz With Bashir, former Israeli soldier Ari Folman’s attempt to deal with his hazy memories of the 1982 refugee-camp masssacre at Sabra and Chatila (conducted by Christian Phalangists under controversial circumstances) during the Lebanese Civil War. “A Fascist masterpiece” was his damning verdict – he was outraged that we were being asked to feel sympathy for the traumatised Israelis, rather than those who were actually murdered during the atrocity.
I respectfully disagree with my friend on both counts – I don’t think the film is Fascist (the massacre is clearly presented as a Very Bad Thing), and nor do I think it’s any kind of masterpiece. The combination of the harrowingly serious subject-matter and the radically innovative form seems enough for many observers to hail Folman’s achievement in ecstatic terms.
Personally, I found that, despite a handful of remarkable moments (many of them involving the conjunction of astonishing imagery with rock and/or pop tunes of the era), I was left oddly dissatisfied by a film which – probably because of the high cost of animation – runs for barely 70 minutes (padded out to 80 by opening and closing titles which are notably protracted.) The viewer is presumed to know an awful lot about the historical background of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, and while Folman’s approach will undoubtedly inspire many to seek further information for themselves, a few more expository title-cards (or narration) wouldn’t have gone amiss.
In addition, I felt that the computer-enhanced animation techniques tended to unhelpfully mediate and thus distract from the experience of learning about Folman’s discoveries, and give the picture a gimmicky feel that sits most awkwardly with the content (see Waking Life, which is surely a more deserving candidate for the “first animated documentary” accolate, for a neater combination of form and subject.)
The use of animation in Waltz With Bashir (an odd choice of title, one which only awkwardly fits the specific incident to which it supposedly refers) does however allow Folman to present rather flattering versions of both his present and youthful self – and seldom can any director, in any type of film, afforded himself quite so many soulful close-ups.


Neil Young

JULIA : [7/10] : France (Fr/USA/Mex/Bel) 2008 : Erick ZONCA : 144m (BBFC)
WALTZ WITH BASHIR : [6/10] : aka Vals i’m Bashir : Israel (Isr/Ger/Fr/USA) 2008 : Ari FOLMAN : 90m (BBFC)

both seen at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle (tickets  £6.70)