After stumbling with a film that was over the top by even his standards (2013’s I’m So Excited!), Pedro Almodovar returns to the female-centric well that helped establish him as one of the world’s foremost directors. His new feature is anchored by the two powerful central performances in Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez as the titular Julieta. It is a film that is often beautiful, while also barely missing the mark. Moreover, it’s also one not to be missed.
Julieta starts out as a woman who seemingly has everything together. She is in a happy relationship and about to move out of Madrid. After a chance meeting with an old friend of her daughter’s, though, she becomes unraveled. It turns out Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) has recently seen Antia, Julieta’s daughter. Unfortunately, this is news to Julieta, who hasn’t seen her only child in 12 years. She takes it as one would expect, which is not well at all. Eventually, she forces herself to write a long letter to her lost daughter, explaining what she couldn’t bring herself to do so many years ago.
The majority of the story is explored through flashbacks. We see Julieta at age 25, on the night she met Antia’s Father, Xoan (Daniel Groa). After witnessing a traumatic incident, the two of them feel drawn together, even though Xoan is married. To make his plight more sympathetic, along while tying into a running thematic thread, his wife has unfortunately been in a coma for the past 5 years.
For the most part Xoan and Julieta’s life feels ideal, like a fairy tale. The raise a loyal daughter, who would rather stay at home in the summer, toiling around on her father’s sailboat, than run off to camp. When her mother pressures Antia into going, she isn’t aware that doing so will lead to the most pivotal moment in their lives. It goes for the jugular by painting a painful course of a woman slipping into an almost vegetable state of depression.
The struggles of Julieta’s life are laid bare on the screen, a woman consumed by the selfish hope to better her life. Regardless of her station, she also imposes judgment on those closest to her. The fact that she can be so blind to the world is continually revisited. There are similarities between her father and husband who both engage in affairs. Her daughter’s confusion and alienation match that of the man on the train who commits suicide. Julieta sees herself in all these people, even while missing the importance of her noticing.
The parallels don’t just end at the human level. Often they seep their way into the set design as well. Almodovar seems to be restraining himself in order to let the story speak for itself. Thankfully, he can’t help but add flourishes when it may punctuate the proceedings. A few scenes play as if directed by an older Wes Anderson, minus his sense for twee bouts of levity. These elements only help to heighten the emotional stakes. If Julieta were only to be examined on the surface level, the resonance would be lost. Almodovar has fashioned something that is part parable, part puzzle box. What it adds up to may differ depending on perspective, as discussions of creativity, the meaning of art, and the misreadings of such things are peppered throughout.
If there is a glaring fault, it would be that Almodovar fumbles to make all his elements track. Possibly to blame is the fact that his script is built from 3 short stories by Alice Munro. Attempting to give the stories a through line is a daunting task, specially as unseen events around the heroine are constantly in flux. As years pass Julieta finds her self often as a woman who wants to deal in absolute truths, regardless of subjectivity, lest her mind wanders farther. The audience is dared to tackle the same test, wanting concrete answers from a movie that isn’t interested in giving any.
Not enough praise can be thrown at the feet of Ugarte or Suarez, both of whom paint a rich tapestry of a woman who is a detriment to herself when left to think. Inma Cuesta and Rossy de Palma get less screen time, but both are essential as the women in Xoans life.
Julieta might be considered one of Almodovar’s lesser efforts by some. It nonetheless is a captivating portrait of guilt, love, judgement and the fear of being alone. Were more films crafted with such care or forethought, the cinematic world would be all the better for it, even if it doesn’t fully stick to its landing.