Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Starring Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suarez, Michelle Jenner, Inma Cuesta, Daniel Grao, Dario Grandetti, Adraina Martin, Priscilla Delgardo, Blanca Pares
Film Review by Andrew Moore
After 2013’s amusing yet ultimately disappointing I’m so Excited which clearly lacked the intellectual gravitas Pedro Almodovar’s filmmaking today is now capable of I’m more than happy to say that Julieta is a complete return to form imbued with the subtle and intelligent use of film language and visual story telling which Pedro Almodovar has become known for combined again with key themes of maternity. In fact the film almost comes across as an intelligently prescribed reaction to I’m So Excited. Loosely adapted from three interlinked short stories by celebrated Canadian writer Alice Monroe and relocated from Canada to Spain it’s an absolute pleasure to watch with its beautifully rich use of colour (especially red and blue), highly developed sense of mise-en-scene and its ability to provide the film’s key motifs in such a naturalistic yet stylish manner whilst slowly developing a simmering sense of intrigue. Additionally what could have had the potential to become a difficult, over complicated and somewhat convoluted adaptation from book to film in the hands of a lesser director is here achieved seamlessly. The flashbacks work effortlessly within the parameters of the story with a perfect sense of tempo that move the narrative along and draw the viewer into the story. Furthermore at no point does having two actresses playing the younger and older central protagonist (Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez respectively) become complicated, it works in every sense, is completely believable and finally merges beautifully in a towel scene with Julieta’s daughter Anita (Blanca Pares) revealing the older Julieta (Emma Suarez) in actual film-time.
The film itself is very much about the effects of the daughter Anita’s disappearance on Julieta, how her character internalises the grief of it and eventually even buries it (living in a kind of emotional hiatus) and far less about why the daughter actually disappears. Emma Suarez’s Julieta hides this episode of her life from her present partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti - a central character in 2002’s excellent Talk to Her) and her father too who himself has moved on to a new life after the death of Julieta’s mother. That the emotional rug is suddenly pulled away from her when she meets Anita’s childhood best friend Beatriz (played by Michelle Jenner at this point) who tells her she’s seen her daughter (now a mother with three children) at Lake Como thus begins our story and Juliet’s journey away from Lorenzo (at this point) and back to the apartment block in Madrid (where her daughter apparently still thinks she lives) as the past hypnotically resurfaces in a series of flashbacks. Meanwhile Julieta begins a dairy written to her daughter about the time she met her fisherman father Xoan (Daniel Grao) on an atmospheric Hitchcockian winter train journey after leaving her compartment when an lonely, older man attempts to engage her in conversation (which she uncomfortably declines). Xoan (also lonely) is already married (but to an invalid wife who eventually dies) and later that night they make love. This is after it’s revealed the old man in the carriage has committed suicide (much to Julieta’s guilt) - guilt is a key theme in the film.
The sense of intrigue, suspense and hidden motivations in Julieta isn’t of course a first in an Almodovar film but often an ever present central theme. 1987’s Law of Desire is a classic example but there are many others. Missing here is the use of ambiguous sexuality or camp flippancy in the central characters or even any actual truly nefarious dealing, the story itself and its masterfully layered telling is where the intrigue lies. There’s a calm, intelligently prescribed tone throughout the film that gives it complete authenticity and the right to tell Julieta’s tale after the death of Xoan and the disappearance of Anita. We discover that Anita did blame her mother and the indiscretions of her father’s ex girlfriend Ava (Inma Cuesta) for the argument that led ultimately to her father’s decision to go out on his boat (and into an eventual fatal storm) but that she also blamed herself for being away at summer camp during this time (or it wouldn’t have happened). This is in spite of Anita and best friend Beatriz (who she met at this summer camp) pretty much becoming Julieta’s carers after the shock of Xoan’s untimely death. That said we’re given no real motivation for the later Anita’s brainwashing/conversion/sudden change that led to her disappearance from the spiritual camp in the Pyrenees other than needing some vague form of spiritual cleansing. When Anita departs for the Pyrenees there’s an initial awkwardness (how close is Julieta actually to her daughter), then a subtle poignancy but then perhaps only we (the viewer) are privy to this (after all, we already know more than the characters in this scene). That the adult Anita reveals the death of her own son in her final letter to Julieta is the litmus for her to communicate with her mother again, she understands the pain Julieta went through when she herself disappeared. Key moments in Anita’s and Julieta’s life have been dictated by death and guilt, and of course Anita was even conceived after a suicide but now we see the story’s circle is becoming completed.
There’s a reference to surely one of the most filmic of crime writers Patricia Highsmith in Julieta by Lorenzo when he mentions following Julieta after she choose (upon hearing about her daughter’s re appearance) not to see him anymore, and I can’t help thinking how much I’d love to see Pedro Almodovar direct a full Patricia Highsmith adaptation. His style of rich visual communication combined with how he eloquently unravels his stories to reveal hidden truths and character motivations would lend itself perfectly to this. As ever in a Pedro Almodovar film the central performances are a hypnotically engaging tour de force and the direction, use of geographic location and visually arresting, textured cinematography a master class in all that is great about stylish quality filmmaking from one of Europe’s truly great auteur filmmakers. This is further augmented perfectly by the slow burning suspense of Alberto Iglesias’s film score. Some may take issue with the abrupt nature of the film’s ending but given that (as previously stated) I feel the film is a study about Julieta, her internalisation of guilt and the emotional immersion of her daughter’s disappearance (and not about why Anita left) I see no issue with it because as previously noted, the cycle of the film’s motivation is closing. There was of course talk of this being Almodovar’s first English language film but I for one am happy he choose to make it a quintessentially Almodovarian Spanish film. This is what Pedro Almodovar is to me and there’s absolutely no need to change what has made this director, from my early film student days watching his La Movida and post La Movida films and on to the accomplished award winning masterpieces, one of my favourite and one of the world’s most consistently celebrated and respected film makers. He deserves his place in the roll call of Cinema’s greatest directors and I’m glad to say this film has further cemented that process.