Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Review: Julia (1977)

Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Streep
Grade: B

Fred Zinnemann's "Julia" sure is an odd duck. It's so odd that it doesn't feel like Zinnemann made it at all -- less formal  and glamourous than his Fifties' work, quirky and clunky as if Frank Perry or Jerry Schatzberg were at the helm. It's set during the war but you rarely think of it as a period film, of-the-time in its quadrant of uncertainty and incoherence yet stylistically appealing in its lack of an assured gaze. Based on the memoirs of playwright Lilian Hellman there's a distinct impression that this passage of her history represents but a misty swarm of ideas and feelings within the book, which is a sentiment that's echoed onscreen.

"Julia" is a rare period drama where you have to put in nearly as much as you get out. Lilian and Julia enter the film with a childhood bond that permeates the surface of mere adulation into something more spiritual and undefined, a couple of early sequences dedicated to hints of exposition. Alvin Sargent's script then lurches forward to a fag-chuffing Jane Fonda looking stressed at her typewriter, and a stately Jason Robards as her friend and advisor Dashiel Hammett. Lilian is marooned in her beach house and grasping for inspiration, precluding an outside world which is coming to terms with major political unrest. While Julia participates in resistance projects, Lilian approaches the global situation with her words, thoughts, feelings, and indelible ink.

There are so few passages in which we're told what somebody is thinking or feeling, or made to sympathise with one political cause or another -- even as a fascist-set drama rightly never has to justify lambasting its subject matter. We're making sense of the characters and what they represent, but we aren't following them like puppy dogs. We merely watch while events revolve around them, and observe their fragmented distillation of fear. This isn't a smooth, linear story of arcs and lessons -- it's an oscilloscope of connection-through-disconnection, and a portrait of how one's life isn't so designated and remedial a journey. How we're indecisive, wary, blameful, duly responsible, even as what goes on around us feels so unapproachably abstract. The fate of the writer is perhaps an even bigger burden; what is progress without improvement, enlightenment, and approval? What are we without labels or goals?

At least in terms of dialogue none of the characters fully address these conflicts, and one scene in particular demonstrates how the script doesn't need to preach to transfer its thoughts. Sat in a German bar Lilian eventually makes the gruelling trip to Julia's hideout, where the two discuss what Julia has been doing in their period apart. As is in the scheme of Zinnemann's storytelling there isn't a lot of detailed information, but instead he presents a reunion that speaks volumes without having to cause a commotion. With lesser actors it's difficult to see this five-minute setup providing such a wealth of emotion, but because it's Redgrave and Fonda we get it all. Redgrave in particular has the uncanny ability to provide magnetic presence without appearing at all aware of the camera, and the nature of Julia as unconcerned with anything but her own passioned intentions lets us see her on the otherworldly pedestal Lilian builds for her. 

Zinnemann insists on harking back to one lingering point of recognition: a shot of the sun setting on the sea and an unmanned boat (Kim Ki-Duk-style) in what's probably an overly poignant way of rooting us in Lilian's lost world of the writer. We're often left too entrenched in this pocket of uncertainty that the film lacks a certain level of scope and sense of the period, but it's forever enchanting and deep in maturity. "Julia" is a hotchpotch of unfocused archives amidst one woman's attempts to reconcile herself with a conventional point of meaning. Ultimate accomplishment may inherently elude this film, but bully for those involved that it manages to be as bracing as it is without succumbing to staples of the biographical drama.