Updated response from the film's director at the bottom.
It starts off sexy: a vibrant drunk Tilda Swinton is looped in the arms of one man and then another, in a crazy dance under flashing bar lights to rock music. This energetic opening sets up the promise of Erick Zonca's new release, Julia, and the movie delivers. Tilda Swinton is, from beginning to end, an emotional live-wire, a solo performance of anxious dynamism: cigarette smoking, wielding a black gun, breaking out in sweat with hands on her temples as she contemplates her next move in this suspense-driven plot.
The story? It doesn't really matter. Truth is: the story is a bit over-the-top. A woman on the outs -- a decadent unemployed alcoholic whose greatest strength is that she can seduce any male (even the little boy she eventually kidnaps), what with her high-energy face and crinkle-up-in-a-second lips (and big breasts hanging in thin colored summer dresses) -- decides to go for broke and become a criminal with a mission. The second half of the film, where the action begins, is a violent tour-de-force, including a car crash or two, a blown up brain slithering on a wall, and a border crossing. Tilda keeps going.
This is an extreme woman in the genre of extreme women: Medea, Lilith, Hedda Gabbler -- and more recently, in film, Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise, John Cassavetes' Woman Under the Influence, and Patty Jenkins' Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. What the extreme chicks have in common, and this for millennia, is that they startle with their unfeminine characteristics (they kill, they plan, they rebel, they HURT children) at the same time that they fascinate with the exaggeration of the feminine: their ability to emote. Film and theater have always obsessed with giving lead roles to the woman at the edge -- who perform a hysterical tight-rope act that a man in the same position could not pull off without shame -- and this latest newcomer is one of the best, rivaling the dance-madness of Gena Rowlands. Pure energy to watch, a thrill to give into. As the director said in the Berlinale press conference: "I picked Tilda Swinton because she is all energy, like an Italian. I need this big energy for the film, in the body, in the movement."
Does it matter that the story becomes a bit light, with generic plot twists, and even more generic resolution? Not so much, as the point is the feminine as a spectacle in itself. Why we are so intrigued by women at the edge/under the influence is another question.
Response from Director Erich Zonca:
An extreme woman is, at least in this film, someone who throws her life into danger, someone who is in front of an extreme violent situation and will fight to get out. I also wanted to confront two words: woman and extreme, which are a kind of antagonism. I've finally gone beyond this antagonism and I made a strong, extreme character and so feminine at the same time. Tilda was the one to play Julia. I felt at first glance she has this extreme femininity which has not shown a lot in her previous movies.