Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao
Julieta contains one of the simplest, most surprising and most satisfying pieces of editorial trickery you’ll find in a film all year as, with the ruffle of a towel, a character is transformed. Told over decades and mostly through flashback, the actress playing the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) makes way for her middle-aged counterpart (Emma Suárez). Through the shifting chronology of the story you’ll have, by this point, spent time with both of them, but to see the baton being passed between them within a scene is a remarkable experience, and one of several highlights in this delicious melodrama.
It is the handiwork, of course, of Pedro Almodóvar, who skillfully entwines three short stories by Alice Munro in order to create something lavishly, unmistakably his. His ownership of the material is there from the first frame which accentuates and prioritises the texture of fabric; the lushness of its colour, the shadows that it casts. Almodóvar’s cinema has long invited audiences to gorge themselves on the details, and the aesthetics here are as giving as they’ve ever been.
It’s something of a relief following the camp dalliance of his last picture, the fleeting, underwhelming airborne comedy I’m So Excited! which was greeted with polite exuberance two years ago, but which has swiftly slipped to near the bottom of the deck. Julieta restores the faith. And while it doesn’t see Almodóvar particularly enhancing his established range, it is more a return to form in the classic sense. While 2011’s The Skin I Live In was a (terrific) departure into quasi sci-fi territory, Julieta feels like the work of a director returning home from an extended vacation, reacquainting himself with the tactile domesticities that he may have once taken for granted.
A chance meeting stirs up a torrent of emotions in the middle-aged Julieta, emotions which compel her to write a journal to her estranged daughter Antía. Through this framework the film pirouettes into the past, to before Antía’s birth and a younger Julieta having a chance romantic encounter aboard a train following a mysterious tragedy. Her unexpected lover is Xoan (Daniel Grao); their lustful, unstoppable chemistry exemplified by the sight of a stag running alongside the train. The entire sequence is one of Almodóvar’s richest in years, different feelings swirling around one another in a manner that’d make Carol feel dizzy.
Julieta has the potential to be this year’s Carol, though where Todd Haynes’ tale of love and tragedy was cast in the frosty palette of winter, Almodóvar favours the exact opposite, engorging his film with rich and giving colours. Nevertheless, both films soar thanks to the deft subtleties of their construction. Just as Carol has improved on repeat viewings, so one suspects Julieta will give more as further little details present themselves.
The narrative has several concerns, but none more so than the sense of history repeating, as though destinies are passed on like hereditary illnesses; defects of DNA one cannot hope to escape from. Thus the film features recurring gestures and motifs (the packing of books, empty bags etc) suggesting that it’s events are all taking place in a micro-climate. Staring into Julieta is like peering into a tornado; eventually the same debris circles around to strike at you.
Though if this makes the film sound tempestuous, that’s a little off the mark. Despite a vital narrative turn hinging on a (breathtakingly realised) storm, Julieta is a notably sedate, steadily paced affair that bobs along gracefully like Woody Allen during his European phase (only with less irritating neuroses). It’s release at the end of the season feels wisely timed. There’s a sense of exhale about the whole movie, and in Suárez he presents an actor capable of tearing up hearts during this Indian summer.
Suárez and her younger counterpart Ugarte are terrific here, and it’s hard to pick between them. Ugarte is particularly striking and her director takes great pleasure evoking styles of past eras with her hair and wardrobe. These elements are, unsurprisingly, exquisite throughout. Even when he’s supposedly off his game, Almodóvar is a master stylist, and Julieta is as ravishing as anything we’ve previously encountered.
One might have expected the Hitchcockian set-up to be complimented by an equally Bernard Hermann-esque score, yet the music provided by Alberto Iglesias instead tilts toward the jazzier compositions of Angelo Badalamenti. It’s another element that adds to the warmth of the film. That sense of a hot breeze passing around the audience, complimenting the passionate emotions on the screen.
If there’s anything to particularly grumble about it’s the sense that, once Julieta has unburdened herself of her sob-story, the film’s closing credits leap in when it feels as though we have a good four of five scenes still to play. Though it sounds like limp criticism to suggest Julieta could’ve happily kept going on and on – and it’s not as though Almodóvar films haven’t ended abruptly before – the way in which this film so suddenly comes to a close does throw the viewer for a loop. You’re left half-expecting a Marvel style mid-credits sting so we can go back to the action.
On reflection, however, Almodóvar gives us everything he needs to. Julieta is a small but delicately tended story of passion, regret and unsolved mysteries, one accepting of the fact that life and all it’s complications don’t fit conveniently into the shape of any film, and that these stories we share with one another are, after all, only glimpses of the world. If he can keep up such quality, Almodóvar’s indulgences are likely to keep rewarding us for as long as we’re lucky to have him.