(photo credit: PR)
Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, Julieta, which was the opening-night movie at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is uncharacteristically low key.
I’ve always liked Almodovar best when he is at his most frenetic and crazy, in such films as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I’m So Excited! But Almodovar also has his melodramatic Douglas Sirk homages, such as All About My Mother, Volver, Broken Embraces and many others. Julieta is one of the latter, and although it is well acted and carefully plotted, it is so restrained and tasteful that it lacks the energy that usually makes even Almodovar’s most bizarrely conceived stories entertaining.
Loosely based on three Alice Munro short stories, the film focuses on the title character at a few points in her life. As the film opens, Julieta (Emma Suarez) is packing up her Madrid apartment to move to Portugal with her intellectual lover, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But by chance, when she runs into Bea (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her daughter, Antia, on the street, her plans change. Bea has just seen Antia, and Julieta feels she cannot leave Madrid knowing that her daughter is close by.
It turns out that Antia has refused to see her mother for decades, and Julieta did not even know that her daughter has three children. Abandoning Lorenzo, who knows nothing about Antia, Julieta rents an apartment in the building where she lived when Antia was an adolescent. As Julieta writes a letter to her daughter, the movie flashes back to Julieta’s life as a young woman and young mother.
In this section, Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte. As a young teacher who is passionately concerned about her students, she takes a train trip when she meets a slightly sinister older passenger and a handsome young fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao). A highly symbolic stag runs alongside the train in the snow at night, although exactly what it symbolized, I couldn’t tell you for sure. Xoan rescues Julieta from the unwanted attentions of the older man and tells her that his wife is in a coma, a plot development that recalls Almodovar’s Talk to Her
. But in spite of the fact that he is technically married, he and Julieta fall for each other and she gets pregnant. Conveniently, the unseen comatose wife dies, and Xoan marries Julieta.
They ought to be deliriously happy, but there is much foreshadowing of disaster. Julieta takes baby Antia to visit her parents on their farm, and her father his having a very open affair with the young Moroccan woman he has hired to take care of her mother, who is ill and weak. Xoan has a sinister housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma, who could have doubled for a Cubist painting when Almodovar cast her in Women on the Verge
but who looks a bit more conventional now), and an artist friend, Ava (Inma Cuesta), who took care of him when his wife was ailing and hangs around a bit more than Julieta feels comfortable with. A marital crisis precipitates a sudden tragedy in Julieta’s life, for which Antia blames her. After the girl goes on a cult-like retreat, she disappears from her mother’s life.
While this may sound like an eventful story, it plays out quite flat. Other than the presence of Rossy, the only real Almodovar touches are some phallic statues Ava makes and one brightly patterned article of clothing per scene. The character of the daughter exists mainly to withdraw from and to disappoint her mother. We understand that she gets angry with Julieta, but why, under the influence of those who manage this retreat, she would cut off all contact for decades is not clear. This is Julieta’s story, to be sure, but Antia is such a cipher that it makes the story feel a bit unbalanced.
In spite of excellent performances by the three main cast members — Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte and Daniel Grao — you may find your mind wandering. While it is diverting for a little while to dwell on the characters’ lovely hair, beautiful clothes and carefully designed apartments, these pleasures fade quickly.