Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Stars: Adriana Ugarte, Emma Suarez, Daniel Grao, Rossy de Palma
Released 26th August 2016
Director Pedro Almodovar has been keeping his fans waiting. After his 2013 comedy ‘I’m So Excited’ – which, in truth, was nothing to get excited about – he’s back this week on familiar territory. A multi-layered, female-centric melodrama.
Folds of startlingly red fabric fill the screen for the opening shot. The camera lingers and we can see there’s a heart beating underneath, then it pans out to reveal the Julieta (Emma Suarez) of the title, gently wrapping a piece of sculpture. She’s preparing to go away – emigrate in fact – but then a chance encounter on the street throws all her plans up in the air. She runs into her daughter’s one-time best friend, an encounter that resurrects a deluge of memories, from the girl’s birth to her disappearance 12 years ago, prompting Julieta to address the pain of the past and make a last-ditch attempt to find her child.
That storyline comes with layer upon emotional layer piled on top of each other and an abundance of themes. So many that not all of them have the opportunity to be fully explored. But those that are, however, are enough to make a complex and thoughtful film. Yet there’s something missing. Almodovar’s default setting is flamboyant and colourful – all of which were on show in the frothy ‘I’m So Excited’. This time, he’s in a more sombre mood, giving us something heavier and solemn: nothing wrong with that, but all the energy that went with his usual style seems to have been subdued, even if the film does move along at a brisk enough pace. That said, Almodovar can’t resist giving the story a coating of melodrama, bringing on the swelling violins in the background in almost Hitchcockian fashion. It’s a curious mix.
Even though the tone is something of a departure for the director, the film’s themes mean he’s slap bang in his comfort zone. One of his perennials, motherhood and mother/daughter relationships, is right at the heart of ‘Julieta’, in this case one that’s broken down. The older Julieta narrates her own memories and what she describes as her daughter Antia’s (Priscilla Delgado) life, in an effort to discover why the girl left so suddenly. But what soon becomes apparent is that we’re watching Julieta’s own story and that she never really knew her child. She may have thought she did, but she didn’t. And, as this side of the story becomes even more glaringly obvious, there could be one or two parents uncomfortably wriggling in their seats.
The film’s strength lies in the acting, and Almodovar’s skill in directing women is as strong as it ever was. Two women play Julieta – no CGI aging here – and the younger one (Adriana Ugarte) convincingly matures into her older self, elegant and sophisticated on the outside, torn apart on the inside. And, while the themes are weighty and painful – grief, loss, guilt – some dark humour occasionally creeps in courtesy of Almodovar regular, Rossy de Palma. She’s the over-protective housekeeper who works for the younger Julieta’s lover, Xoan (Daniel Grao), disapproves of their relationship, yet ironically adores its result, Antia.
The director’s gone on record as saying that ‘Julieta’ needs be seen twice and is more enjoyable second time round when the audience knows the story. It’s certainly a well-acted and absorbing piece of cinema, but a repeat viewing? Not for the time being.