Rape and revenge, the peanut butter and jelly of exploitation filmmaking, define the parameters of “Julia.” The movie opens with a rape and ends the moment that rape has been avenged. Julia, the victim and avenger, shows little sign of having existed prior to her rape and even less sign of continuing her existence once she has meted vengeance upon her attackers and the credits start to roll. She is, in other words, just a prop in director Matthew A. Brown’s slickly pretentious exercise in empty style. The extent to which this bothers you will largely determine your appreciation for the film.
Within the first five minutes of “Julia,” the title character, a shy, intentionally desexualized nurse living in New York City played by Ashley C. Williams (best known as the centerpiece of the Human Centipede and a woman who surely must have a lot of awkward conversations with her parents when they ask how the whole “acting thing” is going) has been raped and left for dead. After overhearing of a “therapy” for rape survivors, she becomes initiated into a kind of rape-revenge cabal headed by an unseen male leader who cautions her to give herself over completely to his methods, which forbid against tracking down her attackers. Instead, she is trained by the beautiful, Irma Vep-ish Sadie to weaponize her sexuality and deploy it against every PUA douchebag within a ten mile radius.
A number of aspects recall Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45”—another NYC-set tale of a shy young woman avenging her rape upon the city’s general population of sleazebags. Like Ferrara, Brown attempts some gestures toward feminist relevance, though his are considerably less convincing. In “Ms. 45,” the protagonist, Thana, is mute—a (slightly dubious) metaphorical jab at the silencing of women, particularly victims of rape; well, Julia scarcely speaks more lines than Thana, but that’s only because Brown clearly has nothing for her to say. A tryst between Julia and Sadie, staged as a blood-soaked shower makeout sesh, is just one of many indications that Brown is less interested in rape as a social problem than in blood artfully spattered on a woman’s breast.
Which might not have been such a problem if Brown’s slickly brutal style were more personal. “Julia” is certainly a stylish piece, full of artful neon-bathed compositions, but, while Brown exerts a stylistic command over his material, his images are raided from the past decade and a half of international artsploitation cinema, from the neon nihilism of Nicolas Winding Refn to the affected brutality of Park Chan-wook to the most famous scene in Takashi Miike’s “Audition.” Even locating Julia’s apartment in Chinatown is just an excuse to throw some neon Chinese characters in the frame as an homage to Johnnie To. “Julia” is an entirely artificial blend of influences—”synthetic” in all senses of the word.