Word on the street after the Berlinale was that French director Erick Zonca's English language debut, Julia, was either an homage to the films of John Cassavetes (to those who liked it) or a pitiful tinkering with Cassavetes's style (to those who hated it, and sometimes quite viscerally). Maybe it's just because I was looking for it too hard, but I frankly didn't see it, unless having a female protagonist is all it takes to compare a film to Cassavetes, in which case we're in worse shape than I thought.

(Actually, people were trying to compare the film to Cassavetes's Gloria, which I have not seen, not the director's whole career, but then dammit, they should have phrased it that way).

So, leaving out the Cassavetes connection, here's how I found Julia: a film with a magnificent opening 45 minutes or so, that turns into an agreeable but derivative botched-kidnapping for another 45 minutes, before finally turning into a sloggy trip to Mexico that serves very little obvious purpose other than spackling some extra running time onto a film that ends up feeling overlong at some two and a quarter hours. At all points, the plot is significantly less interesting than Julia Harris, the woman at its center, and this is primarily because of Tilda Swinton, one of the best actresses currently working in the cinema.

Even the briefest scan of Swinton's two-decade career makes it quite obvious that she's not the kind of performer who has a "type", but even given that observation, Julia doesn't feel like a Swinton character. Loud-mouthed, alcoholic, a trashy dresser, given to waking up in men's beds with no particular recollection of how she got there, Julia could easily have turned into an ugly caricature, and Swinton doesn't always avoid that trap, particularly in the earliest scenes showcasing Julia's booziest excesses. But even though she is playing a woman who basically lacks dignity, the actress never seems to betray knowledge of that fact. Julia herself doesn't realise that she lacks dignity, and Swinton does a more than credible job fleshing out the character's ill-placed self-assurance without asking for laughs or pity. It's just who Julia is, and it's commendable that Swinton is comfortable letting that be the end of it. It's also worth at least mentioning that the actress is willing to let herself be so deglamorized as she is in this role, full of sweat and dirt and flab and awful makeup, but Swinton hasn't ever been an actress to shy away from physically ugly roles, so it feels more like business as usual than bravery.

Take out that wonderful central performance and what's left is a film of little distinction. The plot is unabashed color-by-numbers: Julia, faced with a life crumbling down around her, has the misfortune to believe her fellow AA member, Elena (Kate del Castillo), an obviously unstable woman who gets very excited when talking about her impending plot to kidnap her son, adopted by his wealthy paternal grandfather and kept from his mother, and now Elena wants Julia to help her with this scheme (the manner in which Elena is unambiguously presented as crazy is so over the top that I genuinely believed that she was making up the entire relationship, based on some newspaper clippings, and the only moment in the film that really surprised me is when it turns out that she is, indeed, the birth mother). At first seduced by Elena's promise of$20,000, Julia comes up with a better idea - why not kidnap Tom (Aidan Gould) herself, and hold him for ransom? Of course, movie kidnappings aren't ever that simple, for else they would not provide movie plots, and Julia's terrible mishandling of everything from the phone calls to the grandfather to the easily-penetrated safehouse eventually sends her scurrying to Mexico with the boy.

So far, so good, if hardly exceptional; but in the film's last third in Mexico, things go entirely off the rails. Julia's continued idiocy ends with Tom getting kidnapped again, and the kidnappers, assuming that she's the boy's mother, present her with a ransom of their own. Thus begins some 20 minutes of Julia's attempts to choreograph her own receipt of the $2 million she asked for with providing the kidnappers with their $1 million (up from $100,000 after Julia failed to keep her mouth shut), all while keeping everybody in the dark about what's happening. Things end surprisingly cleanly, but for a while there the film is positively unbearable - this might have possibly worked as farce, but it's presented completely straight, and it makes a long film significantly longer.

The good news it that Zonca (whose work I've not previously seen) elects to use a simple, almost Spartan visual style for Julia, which is mostly comprised of wide establishing shots or close-ups, particulaly close-ups of Tilda Swinton, and those are always good things. Which is to say, he avoids the gonzo post-Tarantino stylegasms that would probably have infected every frame of the film if it were an American production. He even keeps the film's few patches of violence tastefully offscreen. Of course, this is all because the kidnapping isn't the point of the film: it's not a crime thriller but a character study, of what happens to Julia as a result of her actions. It could have come a lot closer to working on that level if it weren't so contemptibly long, but Swinton has a good face for the "bug in a jar" school of filmmaking that Zonca seems to favor, and it's largely her presence that saves Julia from itself.