Julia is your typical tale of redemption, even as it thrashes against the sentimentality such a designation implies. As fearlessly played by Tilda Swinton—so often cast in roles for her androgynous appeal or otherworldly, reptilian bloodlessness, but here afforded leeway to get down and dirty—the titular protagonist is a full-blooded human yet completely unsympathetic at first. Self-destructive Julia sees herself as mere victim of a shitty world, refusing to take responsibility for her woes. Everything about the woman is abrasive, from her garish red hair and purple coat to her inebriated come-ons and morning-after put-offs. At the start of the film, you can’t imagine ever empathizing with this woman; it’s a credit to Swinton’s skills that you eventually warm up to her despite the script’s refusal to completely soften her up.
Opening his film on a not-unusual night out for the besequined and glitter-mascaraed lead, Erick Zonca (the French filmmaker responsible for the sublime The Dreamlife of Angels) renders in rambling fashion Julia’s alcoholic pattern: After partying and picking up a conquest, she literally awakens the next morning to the harsh, unflattering light of day, seemingly surprised to find herself in a stranger’s car. Arriving late to work only to be fired for her last-straw tardiness, Julia would seem to have hit rock bottom—but she’s far from it. Her downward journey doesn’t truly begin until she meets a young woman named Elena (Kate del Castillo) at an AA meeting, setting off a chain of events soon to result in a fucked-up kidnapping effort of near Fargo proportions, minus the leavening humor or efficiency of the Coen brothers.