Julia and Julia

March 21, 2012

If Julia and Julia finds its place as a footnote to film history, it will be more for its technical significance than for anything else. That’s because Julia and Julia is the first major theatrical movie shot on high-definition video, rather than traditional film stock.

In this case, Italy’s RAI network funded the experiment to test the commercial and aesthetic possibilities. A lot of people have been talking for years about a future in which most movies are shot on a high-grade video (and then transferred to 35 mm. film, so they can be shown in theaters), which is much cheaper and easier to handle than film stock.

If Julia and Julia is the current state of the art, we’d better hold off on the video revolution for a while. Although this movie is photographed by one of the world’s leading cinematographers, Guiseppe Rotunno, and directed by an ambitious stylist, Peter Del Monte, it still has some serious visual drawbacks.

Shooting on videotape produces an image that is flatter, duller and less expressive than the same image on film. (If you can’t imagine the difference, compare a daytime soap opera, shot on video, to most prime-time TV shows, shot on film.) The process in Julia and Julia is sophisticated, and even produces some interesting images until, oh, the camera moves. Or a character moves. Then, to these purist eyes, anyway, the image looks streaky and unstable.

In theory, Julia and Julia should be the perfect vehicle for a video experiment, since the movie itself is a hallucinatory mood piece, and thus a strange look could be highly appropriate. Kathleen Turner plays a bride whose husband (Gabriel Byrne, of Gothic) is killed on their wedding day; years later, in Trieste, she experiences a spooky shifting reality, when she abruptly spots her husband again in their old apartment, living as though they’d been married for six years. She happily goes back to him, but this new life has a twist: She begins to realize that this other existence includes a lover, a mysterious photographer (Sting).

The poor woman bats back and forth between her two realities until we begin to get the idea that, as is so often the case, it’s all in her head. Keeping her husband alive is, on her part, merely an extension of her “passion unyielding to the grave” (as her wedding-day quote has it).

This movie is too obscure, humorless, and self-consciously arty to score a success, and much of it is awfully precious. But Del Monte does get some dreamily effective action going (somewhat in the manner of his puzzle film of a few years back, Invitation au Voyage), and there is something to be said for simply watching good-looking people in unusual roles—Kathleen Turner and Sting are both excellent.

The video process actually undercuts the movie’s stylization. Video’s flexibility has been used for exaggerated, surreal effects in everything from commercials to music videos, and some of that work is very intriguing. Spread out over a full narrative, however, video serves to flatten, to endow the proceedings with ordinariness. In Julia and Julia, the exotic begins to look mundane.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Does nobody remember this movie? Even now, with all the inevitability of digital’s triumph over film? This was much talked-about at the time, a landmark in video’s invasion of film’s turf. I still remember what it looked like, how awkward it was (projected in 35 mm., of course) and how obviously video-made. Too soon, too soon. But surely the time is ripe for Luca Guadagnino to reunite with Tilda Swinton and do a remake of this, on digital, and give it the heavy-breathing treatment it deserves.