Julieta February 2, 2017
Julieta (2016) is one of the few films lounging in Pedro Almodóvar’s oeuvre that doesn’t feel as though it’s about to fly off the rails at any given moment. Almodóvar, a daring visual stylist whose works more or less look like CinemaScope-lensed melodramas melted down with a box of crayons, and whose works more or less feel like a gasping hybrid of Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk, has predominantly specialized in electric psychosexual thrillers, giggly screwball comedies, and gorgeously overwrought soap opera in his 36 years of working. His creations don’t seem to exist on Earth but on a cinematic Jupiter, all bursting with otherworldly pigmentation and emotion. Only recently has he begun exploring the darker corners of his obsessive imagination with straight-faced curiosity.
Julieta is Almodóvar’s twentieth feature, and is among his most assured. Marking a return to the “serious” cinema of All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002), Julieta doesn’t illuminate characters with their nerves being tap-danced on with caricatured exaggeration but characters with their neuroses naturalistically understood. Almodóvar’s euphorically Technicolor visual cues supplement, not broaden, the realistic hurt that plagues his creations. In a rare twist in a broad stroke loving filmography, the film, aside from its visual luster, is a weeper grounded in bleak reality, even if that reality looks like pop art and not, ahem, reality.
An enthusiast of the flashback as means of storytelling, the movie revolves around Julieta Arcos (Emma Suárez), a middle-aged, former schoolteacher in the process of moving from Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). Upon meeting her does Julieta appear to us as a woman who has her life put together – her apartment is the fervent minimalist’s dream and not a single strand of hair is ever out of place. But a chance encounter with an old acquaintance (Michelle Jenner) reveals that Julieta, for the last 15 years, has been haunted by the disappearance of her daughter, Antía.
The surprising, albeit brief, reunion reopens old wounds for our heroine, who’s tried her damndest to hide the hurt that’s destroyed so much of her happiness for so many years. Unwilling to move on with her life now that suppressed memories are now more vivid than ever, Julieta cancels her move and instead decides to write a lengthy letter to Antía – a letter that might not ever be read – explaining the details of her life, starting with the first time she met Antía’s father, Xoan (Daniel Grao).
From there does the film take on the structure of fictional biopic, as if Julieta herself were a famous figure simply for existing as a woman fighting for her peace of mind. And Almodóvar, at the height of his powers, makes the tragedies of Julieta’s life scream with a sadness that recalls the intensity of a post-Mildred Pierce (1945) Joan Crawford vehicle, only Hollywood showiness is traded for sweat, tears, and an abundance of unfiltered feeling. Receptionary exclamations come by with the dependability of a particularly good telenovela. But the chintz isn’t there, and that makes Julieta snappy rather than fatteningly excitable. Once we can see Julieta’s tragic arc from a distance, the effects of the film’s passion becomes overwhelmingly clear.
For Almodóvar, Julieta is merely a solidifier of his talents – his cinematographic and stylistic commands are as pronounced as ever. But unlike the lip-smackingly theatrical Almodóvar of the 1980s and ‘90s, he has enough confidence in his screenplay and his staging to make his various designs purely ancillary to his narrative.
So what makes Julieta such an effortless, refreshingly breathless psychological drama are the portrayals of its leading heroine, by Suárez in wrinkled midlife and by a radiant Adriana Ugarte in her younger years. Ugarte, as beautiful as an indelible silent movie star, is a fitting tragic figure – so physically stunning is she that the destruction of her once intact ambition and general lust for life becomes octaves more clear-cut the more her incandescence withers. Ugante captures Julieta’s mounting pains with spotless nuance, and Suárez makes for a perfectly cast transition into our protagonist’s present, which is closed-off, barren, and deeply sad (and, not to mention, ripe for the catharsis that comes, frustratingly ambiguously, at the film’s end).
As the juxtaposition between the two lives lived by Julieta – one domestically blissful and plump with potential and the other despairing and soul-searching – thins and eventually becomes singular, then, our hunger for a satisfying resolution rises. And when Almodóvar ends Julieta on an enigmatic note, one can’t help but balk in retort.
Only 96 minutes, the film is brisk, and, in effect, feels slightly unfinished, especially since the closer doesn’t match the elephantine turmoils of everything coming before it. But with Almodóvar’s directorial flourishes so hair-raising and with the leading performances so cogent, Julieta, taking its conclusion into consideration or not, is an enthralling experience, even if there’s something to be desired. B+