A movie that tries to plunge us into the mental workings of a deranged protagonist runs the risk of seeming obscure or pretentious--particularly if the distortions are done without humor. In "Julia and Julia" (selected theaters) writer-director Peter Del Monte runs that risk and never completely surmounts it.
He takes us, with much visual artistry and somewhat less dramatic assurance, into the mind of Julia (Kathleen Turner), the American widow of an Italian in Trieste (Gabriel Byrne). Suddenly, years after his death, she begins imagining him alive again--in the apartment they were supposed to share, together with the son they never actually had.
There's no explanation given for Julia's madness--if madness it is. A mysterious photographer (Sting) floats around the edges of the action, as if he were some human leitmotif. Veils, doorways and mirrors keep appearing: omnipresent symbols.
Julia's visions are apparently triggered by a drive along a night road where mist seems to swallow up her world, an image that irresistibly recalls Giuliana's breakdown scene by the lake in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Red Desert."
Antonioni, to some degree, is the prime visual inspiration here. Del Monte, born in the United States, lives in Italy and has shot films in Italy and France--including that beautifully photographed psychological thriller, "Invitation au Voyage"--and he is working with a favorite cameraman of Fellini and Visconti, Giuseppe Rotunno. Yet the images--languorous, cool, perfectly balanced, yet somehow eerily disturbing and trembling with inner tensions--recall the Antonioni who is a poet of malaise and neurosis.
The mood here is more fey and fragile. The colors are pure and strange, and the landscapes seem translucent, as if they were floating past your eyes. Del Monte's long takes--bathed in cold, pure light--create a dreamy suspension of disbelief that makes the seemingly psychotic intrusions more arresting.
Rotunno and Del Monte shot the picture on high-definition video rather than film--making it something of a benchmark--and although the photography looks different, more muted perhaps, the beauty of the work suggests a greater range of possibilities for future film makers.
There's a mesmeric solidity to the film that sometimes suggests that Julia is not mad--that, somehow, she has slipped into a parallel time or alternate reality where her dead husband and nonexistent son truly do live and that her desperate fight to stay there constitutes an act of heroism.
Since Del Monte conveys almost everything through the visuals and little through the dialogue (by Joseph Minion of "After Hours"), and since Byrne and Sting must play their roles like opaque ciphers while Turner has to sustain a nearly constant state of rapt bewilderment, the otherworldly aspect of the film is accented. Some audiences might grow weary of it.
However, if "Julia" (MPAA-rated: R) is pretentious, at least it isn't cheap or tawdry. Perhaps there's nothing here, in the end, but pretty pictures in a febrile, psychologically tortuous tale. But, for a story like this, pretty pictures are better than ugly or awkward ones, however high or low their definition.