Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar.
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar based on the short stories by Alice Munro.
Starring: Adriana Ugarte (Younger Julieta Arcos), Emma Suárez (Julieta Arcos), Daniel Grao (Xoan), Inma Cuesta (Ava), Michelle Jenner (Beatriz), Darío Grandinetti (Lorenzo Gentile), Rossy de Palma (Marian), Susi Sánchez (Sara), Joaquín Notario (Samuel), Mariam Bachir (Sanáa), Blanca Parés (Antía), Priscilla Delgado (Antía - adolescent), Sara Jiménez (Beatriz - adolescent).
Pedro Almodovar is now one of the elder statesmen of European art house cinema – and like many auteurs as they age (he is 67 – making his 21st feature) – there can be a tendency to repeat your past triumphs. For some, that still works, but for someone like Almodovar – whose films used to be provocative – they can feel like he is trying too hard. We are probably a decade removed from his last great film – Volver (2006) – which came at the end of a seven year period that also produced All My Mother, Talk to Her and my personal favorite Bad Education – great films all. Since then, there has been the overheated Hitchcock homage Broken Embraces (2009) – visually stunning, but not as dramatically satisfying, The Skin I Live In (2011), in which Almodovar flirted with extreme horror, not very effectively for me (others, I know, are big fans) and the downright horrible comedy I’m So Excited (2013) – which is the worst thing I’ve ever seen from him. His new film, Julieta, is somewhat of a course correction – but an odd one in its own way. Like many of Almodovar’s films, the film is clearly inspired by the films of Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – the bold colors, the sweeping camera moves, Alberto Iglesias’ wonderful, Bernard Hermann inspired score – in many ways, you feel like you’re back with Almodovar in his prime. And yet, while Julieta looks like a classic Almodovar melodrama, the film never quite goes all the way over the top, the way he can (usually, brilliantly). While the film looks like his melodramas, in reality, the film stays more grounded in reality than his films usually do. This is, I think, because of the source material – a trio of interconnected short stories by Canadian, Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro. Munro’s stories are often more about the mundanity on real life – which is at odds with Almodovar’s style. It’s a combination that perhaps shouldn’t work at all – but somehow it does. It’s not one of Almodovar’s best – but it’s at the very least very interesting.
The film opens with Julieta (played by the stunning Adriana Ugarte) on a train – where she is going to start her new, temporary job as a classics teacher. On the train she meets two men – the first, an older gentleman who sits down across from her and interrupts her as she reads – saying he’s hoping they can keep each other company on the long ride. Julieta is (understandably) a little creeped out by him, and gets up to leave – ending up meeting, and flirting, with the younger, handsome Xoan (Daniel Grao). Tragedy strikes not long after their meeting – and the guilt that Julieta will feel informs the rest of the story. She will eventually marry Xoan – have a beloved daughter, Antia, but there is more tragedy in store. The framing device – and ultimately final chapter, has a now middle aged Julieta (played by Emma Suarez), searching for her daughter, who ran off years ago, and made it clear she wanted nothing to do with her mother.
I think the first two segments work better than the final one. In these segments, Ugarte is wonderful and truly stunning – her Melanie Griffith in Something Wild look in the first part is a beauty, and she somehow tops it later. It’s a passionate performance – and a wonderful one. It’s her first time working with Almodovar, but hopefully not her last. There’s another wonderful performance in these earlier segments – by Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Mrs. Danvers inspired maid. The third segment – where Suarez takes over for Ugarte isn’t quite as good. I don’t think that’s Suarez’s fault – she is very good in the role, and its nearly perfect physical casting (she looks like she could easily be an older Julieta) – but that part requires her to look so distraught and on the verge of tears for the whole time, that it really starts to get repetitive. Perhaps being familiar with the Munro stories doesn’t help – this is the only part that is really a mystery, and knowing the end (or non-end) that was coming doesn’t help things.
Still though, there’s no denying for me that Julieta is Almodovar’s best in a while – since at least Broken Embraces, and probably since Volver. Perhaps Almodovar needed his detour in horror and silly comedy that his last two films represented, to get back to doing what he does best. This is still somewhat of a departure for him – you expect the film to become overheated, for emotions to spill out all over the screen – emotions that match the explosion of color, music and style in every frame – and it never does. That’s an odd choice to be sure – but an interesting one.