Julieta, dir. Pedro Almodovar│ Pedro Almodóvar has built his reputation on skilfully reappropriating the Sirkian melodrama to tell gripping & often borderline grotesque stories of women in modern day Spain. His 2011 Frankenstein-like incestuous love story The Skin I Live In used fantasy and horror to explore the intricacies of family relationships and the traumatised mind, constantly shifting our affinities for its troubled characters. With Julieta, Almodóvar tames his eccentric sensibilities to tell a simpler story of solitude and abandon, but loses the richness and gripping unpredictability of his better scripts.
Once again demonstrating a sense for real people sadly still rarely found in popular cinema, Almodóvar focuses on a 40-something woman, Julieta. On the cusp of a new life in Portugal with her tender lover Lorenzo, Julieta suddenly finds herself paralysed by her past catching up with her. In typical melodramatic style, the plot then unfolds as she writes a letter to her estranged daughter Antía, telling her their own story and reflecting on her regrets.
In flashback, Adriana Ugarde plays Julieta with youthful subtlety and sensibility, and Almodóvar paints in bright colours the torrid and innocent beginnings of his character’s adventures. Strangers on a train, Julieta and the beautiful fisherman Xoan begin a love affair, which quickly turns into a family when his wife, ill for years, finally succumbs. Julieta and Xoan’s romance is built on the ashes of another one and the empty space it leaves, and in fact, all of the film’s love affairs begin as searches for companionship for fear of loneliness: Lorenzo tells Julieta how much he counted on her to avoid a solitary end of life, and her father found a new partner long before sickness finally took his ill wife.
Almodóvar attempts to go deeper into the moral dilemmas of the flight from solitude by making Julieta a most faithful and guilt-ridden character. She refuses to be replaced and blames herself for the voids left by those who have disappeared from her life. Typically, the director mixes chance and people’s conscious choices, making it harder to decide who or what is responsible for these absences. Nevertheless, Julieta’s devouring remorse misfires and appears trite and somewhat misplaced. In the face of her husband’s and her daughter’s stubbornness, and against the strength of unpredictable natural elements, her painful remorse seems exaggerated and thus uninteresting. As unfair and harsh as it may sound, one does not fully understand why Julieta cannot accept the cruelty of fate and move on. As much as her pain at hearing Antía’s name is understandable, Julieta’s abrupt relapse into her self-destructive search for her daughter appears excessive and manufactured. After all, she was aware of Antía’s existence all these years before hearing of her again.
Not helping matters is Almodóvar’s reliance on clumsy twists revealed through unexpected letters or conversations. Retaining information here does not bring suspense, but rather uncomfortable incredibility, making Julieta’s story less and less engaging. The eventual revelation of Antía’s reasons for abandoning her mother, an event central to the narrative, is itself disappointing in its simplicity. One final ludicrously well-timed and equally frustrating twist hints at the upcoming reconciliation of Julieta and her daughter and feels like a last minute, desperate attempt to round up a directionless story. Despite a promising premise and some insightful observations on loneliness, Julieta leaves one wanting.■
Julieta│ Director: Pedro Almodovar│ Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar│ Camera: Jean-Claude Larrieu │ Editing: Jose Salcedo │ Music: Alberto Iglesias │ Cast: Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao│ Producer: Esther Garcia, Agustin Almodovar│ Production Company: El Deseo│Country: Spain│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 96 min.│ International Sales: FilmNation Entertainment│ Festival: Cannes IFF 2016│Distribution: Gutek Film│