For all of her odd and divergent roles, it’s strange that Tilda Swinton’s only Oscar is for her supporting role in Michael Clayton – an excellent film, but a pretty lesser role for the great actress. When you look at a filmography that includes The War Zone, The Deep End, Broken Flowers, The Man From London and I Am Love, not to mention her recent acclaimed turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and the subject of this post, the unsung Julia, it’s pretty amazing that the actress of our generation (it’s not Meryl’s generation anymore) Swinton hasn’t taken home anything more from the Academy.
Julia is one of those films that doesn’t go where you expect it to and whose, when looking at it in hindsight, structure at once adheres to traditional arcs and is anti-classical. Swinton is, of course, Julia. She’s an alcoholic with a flamboyant wardrobe straight out of the 1980s. She can’t hold down a job so, when her unstable neighbor Elena (Kate del Castillo, in a very impressive turn) offers her a large chunk of change to kidnap her son back from her former husband, Julia agrees. What follows is a frenetic and high-wire, tense and hilarious, sad and touching story that touches on multiple genres but settles comfortably into dramatic character piece.
What makes Julia so great is obviously Swinton. Her title character is a sympathetic wreck. She snaps at children, sleeps around and ignores logic for money. But still – we really like her. This isn’t an easy feat. How many characters can you say that for? I like Julia as much when she commits a pretty horrendous crime in the first act of the film as I do later when her character arc starts to come around and she begins to act as though she actually values life.
Director Erick Zonca, a relative unknown, controls his aesthetic wonderfully. He uses color to great effect, including saturating the entire frame cinematographically-
-to more subtly affecting the frame. Check out these stills for some nice production design:
The shot-reverse-shot here demonstrate the colorful – usually either pastel-based or red-shaded – costume design, alongside the points of light, red, and texture that are present throughout. In that top frame there are two nice points of red – one at the top center, and the other all the way frame-left. Even the bookcase frame-right is warm enough to fit into the scheme. The white light sets everything out.
The lower frame continues with the red costuming. The color of the lamp base echoes the bookcase, and the cherries on the wallpaper continue the theme. It’s a beautiful consistency.
Zoncka also uses some nice techniques to alienate Swinton in the frame. Some are traditional:
The negative space, of course, sets her alone in the environment, but the red of her costuming – Julia is now nearing the Mexico border – is set starkly against the blue, where eventually, once she crosses into Mexico, blue will become the dominant color as an indication (or illusion) of safety.
Here’s another alienating frame:
This is less traditional. Julia is still in the states here. Zonca frames this as a POV, but it isn’t anyone’s. The soft foreground is so prominent as to call attention away from her, almost obscuring her face. The camera position isn’t favorable – as though we’re only allowed to peer at her instead of viewing her full on.
As mentioned, when Julia makes it into Mexico, the color scheme begins to evolve from red to blue:
The cooler palette literally takes the heat off of Julia, softening her anger and our impression of her. But red isn’t entirely gone. Here’s Julia on her way to find danger once again:
The safety (blue) that Mexico had to offer is nowhere to be found. As the scene progresses and we near the climax of the film, Zonca combines his strategies:
The red-clad Julia is still front and center, but the rest of the scene is blue-dominated. It’s the attitudes and situations that she has found (and created) in both Mexico and the US coming to a head.