Julia (2008) – An Experiment in Unsympathetic Empathy

What can I say? I understand Lars von Trier. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there at the Cannes film festival… I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit.

When von Trier announced that he felt sympathy for Hitler, the grandees of the Cannes film festival responded by declaring him persona non grata. While much can be said of von Trier’s history of provocation, I believe that von Trier’s real mistake lay in expressing sympathy for Hitler rather than empathy. Indeed, while empathy involves understanding why someone does what they do and ‘feeling their pain’, sympathy means also seeing that person in a positive light. The slipperiness of these two concepts and their tendency to bleed into one another poses something of a challenge for writers because empathy and sympathy are quite different concepts. We should be able to understand why someone did something without seeing those actions as in any way acceptable.

Humans can be a surprisingly forgiving bunch and the more we understand another person, the more likely we are to see their actions as justified even if we do not necessarily agree with them. Because of this quirk in human nature, there is a tendency for unlikeable characters to wither beneath the glare of sustained psychological scrutiny, meaning that the more you explore a character’s back story and explain their motivations, the more likely it is that an unsympathetic bastard will turn into a big misunderstood puppy.  One could even argue that our tendency to automatically feel sympathy for the characters with whom we empathise accounts for the rise of psychopaths as anti-heroes. Indeed, by labelling a character as a psychopath, writers are making it clear that we ought not to feel much sympathy for them. Consider, for example the difference between character such as Dexter Morgan from Dexter and Vic Mackey from the Shield: Both are stone-cold killers who do not flinch from using horrific violence when it suits them. However, because Dexter has the label ‘psychopath’ attached to him, the character can never be completely sympathetic and so maintains his edge. Conversely, Vic Mackey is just a corrupt cop and, over the series, his actions take on a logic of their own that shifts the character from morally dysfunctional anti-hero to Dirty Harry-style crusader with a private sense of morality. Tellingly, when The Shield ended, Mackey’s future as an office drone was played for its pathos… we were supposed to feel sorry for a man denied access to the streets.

Based upon John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980), Erick Zonca’s Julia can be seen as an attempt to solve this unintentional drift from empathy to sympathy. Telling the story of a selfish, unpleasant and manipulative alcoholic who kidnaps a child, the film works very hard at humanising its protagonist whilst retaining the opinion that she is a wretched human who is undeserving of either our sympathy or forgiveness. While the experiment is not entirely successful and the film does eventually collapse into something approaching sympathy for its protagonist, the move towards a more sympathetic portrayal is marked by a parallel drift away from character-based drama and towards a more genre-friendly approach to storytelling, thus begging the question as to whether we are more forgiving of genre characters than we are of real people.


The film opens on a nightclub. A horrid, dark and sweat-soaked place filled with middle-aged men in ugly suits and middle-aged women in dresses that don’t quite fit and wouldn’t have looked all that nice even if they did. Central to this portrait of human misery is Julia (Tilda Swinton). Tall, red-haired and visibly wasted, Julia dances and flirts her way around the club as she roars her absolute joy and contentment. Hard cut to the following morning and Julia is crawling out of a man’s car. “Don’t fucking touch me!” she barks at the man before walking to her own car and driving home.  The slouch in her shoulders suggests that, despite having slept, Julia is still pissed.  The curtness of her response to the man’s overture also suggests that these sordid encounters are very much a part of Julia’s day-to-day existence. She’s used to waking up in cars with strange men. In other words, Julia is an alcoholic.


Having diagnosed the root of Julia’s problems, Zonca swiftly moves on to exploring the consequences of Julia’s alcoholism. In a pair of elegantly juxtaposed meetings, we see Julia sneering first at fellow addicts and then at fellow employees. Because she does not recognise that she has a problem, Julia has contempt for the other people at AA. Because she does not recognise that her actions have consequences, Julia is sacked from her job. Forced onto the margins of society by her intolerable behaviour and alienated from the demi-monde of drunks and addicts by her act of denial, Julia’s sole remaining link to the world outside of her alcoholism is her sponsor Mitch (Saul Rubinek) who takes it upon himself to help her out whenever he can.


Aside from establishing quite how fantastically unsympathetic and self-destructive Julia can be, these early scenes also serve to introduce the film’s main psychological motif. At one point, Mitch delivers a speech explaining that he believes in Julia because he managed to put his life back together despite being far more aggressive and self-destructive than Julia. Mitch presents his protection of Julia as an expression of his faith in her as an individual but the truth behind his actions is far more self-serving: Mitch needs to believe that Julia can be redeemed because, if Julia can be redeemed, then so can he. This act of psychological slight-of-hand recurs throughout the film and constitutes Zomca’s main insight into the human condition.  According to Zonca, it is a lot easier to lie about yourself when you believe in a lie that you tell about other people. Indeed, by treating Julia as though she can be redeemed, Mitch is asserting and re-asserting his faith in the belief that his redemption will hold.  This complex act of psychological transference is perfectly captured in a Eurythmics song that plays in the film’s opening scene:


Some of them want to use you

Some of them want to be used by you

Some of them want to abuse you

Some of them want to be abused


The consolatory power of lies about other people is further explored in Julia’s relationship with a neighbour.  Julia first encounters Elena (Kate del Castillo) at her AA meeting and, initially, Elena’s pleasant demeanour and generous spirit seems to suggest that she is further along than the deluded Julia. However, Elena then attempts to enlist Julia in a hair-brained scheme to kidnap her own son. Elena swears that she has “more money than she needs” and that she will pay Julia to help her regain custody of her son.  Despite it being obviously too good to be true, Julia swallows Elena’s story hook, like and sinker and sets about borrowing money in order to buy a gun. Returning to Elena’s flat in order to get the money that will allow her to pay back the debt, Julia suddenly realises that Elena was lying and that she is just as broke as Julia.  When Julia challenges Elena, the woman suddenly lets her mask slip and we can see the savagery hidden within. Elena needed to believe that she could get her son back just as Julia needed to believe that Elena was a well-intentioned fool who would happily give all of her money to Julia.


Turning her back on Elena, Julia decides to kidnap the boy herself and manages to spirit him away. Elena’s son Tom (Aidan Gould) is initially hostile to Julia but Julia spins a web of lies about Elena being a wonderful person and Tom begins to thaw. The more Julia lies, the more Tom seems to like her and the more Tom seems to like her, the more Julia lies. In one brilliant scene, Julia explains how wonderful Elena’s smile can be and how everybody loves her.  This extended speech mirrors the earlier speech by Mitch and repeats the same act of psychological slight-of-hand: Julia is talking about the wonderful Elena but the emotion on her face suggests that she wishes she could say the same of herself. Clearly, if Julia can convince Tom that a feral drunk like Elena is worthy of love then maybe people might believe that she too is worthy of love.


As Julia tries to negotiate a ransom with Tom’s grandfather, the film begins to move out of traditional drama and into the realms of the thriller.  Initially subtle, the scene in which Julia drives her car through a fence and into Mexico could just as easily mark the moment where Zonca drives his film into a completely different genre.

Once in Mexico, Tom and Julia begin to bond in earnest. Forced together by their linguistic isolation and cocooned within Julia’s ever-expanding web of lies, the pair begin to communicate as adults. This sort of rapprochement whereby two mis-matched rogues come to an understanding is, of course, a genre staple that features in dozens if not hundreds of buddy cop movies but while Zonca allows Tom and Julia to enjoy a moment of almost idyllic intimacy and love, he remains pointedly silent as to Julia’s true motivations. In a world where lies about other people can mean the difference between self-destruction and self-belief, it is unclear as to whether Julia actually likes Tom or whether she is simply playing with his affections in order to keep him under control. Similarly, it is not clear whether Tom is cosying up to Julia out of genuine affection, as a result of Stockholm Syndrome or out of some weirdly pre-adolescent sexual yearning for her body.  There is a wonderful moment when the pair are hugging in bed and Tom’s eyes move from Julia’s face to her exposed nipple and back again. It is almost as though Tom is trying on different motivations for the situation he has gotten himself into…


One of the peculiarities of Julia is that, taking a page from Cassavetes’ playbook, Zonca originally wrote and planned for a film that was about four and a half hours long. The goal was not in fact to make a four and a half hour film but rather to produce a load of footage from which a much shorter and stronger film could eventually be culled.  One side effect of this process of over-production is that Julia is a much longer film than you might expect.  Ninety minutes in, Tom and Julia are hiding out in Mexico and Mitch is on his way with a $2,000,000 ransom. However, rather than ending the film on this up-beat note, Zonca decides to have a bunch of Mexican drug-addicts abduct Tom, thereby adding an act to the film and expanding its running time to nearly two and a half hours.

Rather than feeling tacked on, this unabashedly genre interlude serves as an arena in which the lies sustaining Tom and Julia are crash-tested. As Julia works her way towards the gang who have kidnapped Tom, her motivations remain majestically unclear: is she genuinely worried about Tom or is she simply worried that, if something happens to Tom, she will not get her money. Zonca sustains the ambiguity regarding Julia’s true feelings by having the characters switch between an almost bewildering array of lies and half-truths.


Initially, the kidnappers abduct Tom because they think that Julia is wealthy. When Julia explains that she has no money and that they will need to deal with Tom’s grandfather, the kidnappers attempt to cut her out of the picture, prompting Julia to respond with astonishing violence. Trying desperately to get some handle on Julia’s motivations, the kidnappers switch between treating her as a business contact and treating her as a concerned mother emotionally invested in Tom’s physical wellbeing.  The hysterical and incompetent nature of the kidnappers’ actions is driven by the fact that Julia herself seems unsure as to which category she fits in. The uncertainty regarding Julia’s motivations is made all the more explicit in a scene where Julia gives a speech about being nothing more than another kidnapper.  On the one hand, this speech invokes the useful myths generated by speeches given earlier in the film but, on the other hand, Julia’s words are absolutely true. She is nothing more than a kidnapper. However, because Julia makes this admission in the form of a speech, the temptation is to treat Julia’s claim of emotional detachment as yet another useful line of bullshit.

Julia is not so much a film of two halves as it is a film of three tiers:

  • The film’s first tier establishes not only Julia’s loathsome character but also the fact that she inhabits a world that runs on lies, lies about yourself and lies about other people.
  • The second tier sees Julia kidnapping a child and slowly winning that child’s trust.
  • The third tier sees Julia battling to rescue Tom from a group of deranged Mexican kidnappers.

The first and third tiers of the film have radically different approaches to characterisation. Julia begins as an in-depth character piece before gradually moving further and further away from psychological analysis and towards the sort of storytelling favoured by the thriller genre.  The film’s final tier is almost pure genre and, if taken in isolation, its story of a desperate and alienated soul finding consolation in the love of a child is fiercely reminiscent of the plot to Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004).  While Julia just about manages to remain unsympathetic throughout the film, it is clear that Zonca only retains Julia’s loathsomeness by effectively denying us the access to her character granted us in the film’s opening tier.  In effect, Zonca establishes Julia as a character unworthy of our sympathy and then starts to hand-wave her motivations in the hope that the opening tier will remain lodged in our minds.  Had Julia been comprised solely of the first and second tier then the character of Julia would have remained unsympathetic. Conversely, had Julia been comprised solely of the second and third tier then Julia would have come across as an entirely generic character whose veneer of emotional disconnection would crumble beneath the weight of a genre storyline about an alienated woman who gives up the chance to be lonely and rich in order to do the right thing and hold on to a child she has grown to love.

By changing his approach to storytelling, Zonca manages to create and sustain a genre film centred upon a thoroughly unsympathetic character. However, this impression is only possible because of an act of narrative slight of hand.  Had Zonca maintained his devotion to in-depth characterisation then I suspect that the film would have shaken itself apart under the pressure of a loathsome character doing ostensibly moral things. However, despite being something of a failed experiment, Julia remains a brilliantly made film that combines a brilliant performance and powerfully insightful characterisation with an intensely enjoyable and elegantly made genre back-end.