Indie Thriller at the Berlinale Tilda Swinton Excels as Alcoholic Kidnapper in 'Julia'

One of the most stylish movies competiting in this year's Berlinale is "Julia," an indie thriller set in California and Mexico. British actor Tilda Swinton plays a middle-aged alcoholic lurching her way from one crisis to another after she kidnaps a millionaire's grandson.

By David Gordon Smith in Berlin

Tilda Swinton plays Julia, an alcoholic desperately looking for a way out of her situation.

Tilda Swinton plays Julia, an alcoholic desperately looking for a way out of her situation.

British actor Tilda Swinton is something of a maverick in the film industry. With her striking looks, lanky frame and intense screen presence, she is an unforgettable leading lady, one who says she appears in Hollywood films so she can afford to do independent movies.

Director Erick Zonca knew from the start that he wanted Swinton to play the eponymous anti-heroine in his new film "Julia," which is currently in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. "Right at the beginning of writing the script we thought of her as Julia," says the French moviemaker, who is best known for his acclaimed 1998 drama "The Dreamlife of Angels." "She is a very special actress because she doesn't belong to the Hollywood system."

The admiration is mutual. "I met Zonca in Cannes and I really liked him," Swinton says. "He is an extraordinary animal with a very rare instinct. ... He wants to be inside the character's head and all around them and embrace them as well. I think that's unique and I want to be a part of it."

The stylish indie thriller, which was made on a shoestring $4 million budget, tells the story of Julia, a middle-aged alcoholic in Los Angeles who is desperately trying to salvage her wrecked life. When Julia meets Elena, a young Mexican mother, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and discovers she plans to kidnap her estranged 9-year-old son from his tycoon grandfather, Julia decides to abduct the child herself and extort Elena's inherited fortune from her.

A downward spiral of violence and picaresque flight begins as an increasingly desperate Julia hides the boy in the California desert and then accidentally drives into Mexico. When the boy gets kidnapped a second time by a ruthless Tijuana gang of extortionists, things start getting really messy.

Swinton kisses director Erick Zonca as they arrive to present their film "Julia" at the Berlinale.

Swinton kisses director Erick Zonca as they arrive to present their film "Julia" at the Berlinale.

Swinton, who made her name in the 1980s making films with legendary British director Derek Jarman, gives a characteristically strong performance as Julia, lurching her way through one disastrous incident after another, vodka bottle always at hand, trying to keep her kidnapping attempt from unraveling and weaving an increasingly complicated web of lies to everyone around her.

"Tilda brings all this energy to the role," Zonca says. "As a director, I love actors who can express how they feel through their body. It was clear from the beginning that Julia was a very physical character, and I could feel that Tilda was like a horse ready to run the race."

Although the character of Julia is deeply unsympathetic at the start and is only slightly more likable by the end of the film, Swinton admits she is fond of the character. "I'd hang with her," she says. "In fact, I have hung with her. I've known her my whole life -- she's a composite of many people I've known. I've been around alcoholism for most of my life."

Despite Julia's addiction to lying and her questionable morals, Swinton feels that she is essentially an idealist. "When I think of all the alcoholics I know, they're generally speaking incredibly powerful, active, enthusiastic, imaginative people who are full of fantasy," she says. "They want life to deliver more, and they're disappointed in reality -- and that's why they drink."

For Zonca, who admits that he himself has had "problems with alcohol," the film, which took the best part of a decade to make, is very personal. "I was inspired by one AA meeting I went to, where I heard the story of a completely normal-looking woman. She told us: 'When I was an alcoholic, I killed my daughter.' What interests me is how people can lose themselves and their humanity and use people around them."

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