UK Release Date – 26th August 2016
The prestigious Pedro Almodóvar makes a masterful return to drama with Julieta, a vibrant film about grief, guilt and mystery.
The Spanish director’s past two films were widely seen as attempts to branch out in genre, with relatively little success. 2011’s The Skin I Live In was an interesting but disappointing stab at body horror; a thoroughly unsettling piece which centred around human captivity and artificial skin. Three years ago he released I’m So Excited! (released in Spain under the superior title of Los amantes pasajeros), a frothy sex farce set on an aeroplane, which garnered even less praise. Julieta has been hotly anticipated as the director’s return to female-led drama, the type of film on which Almodóvar has built his reputation.
The film is an adaptation of three Alice Munro short stories, told through an expertly pieced-together timeline, which relocates the narrative from Canada to (principally) Spain, and follows the life of the titular Julieta as she experiences love – both romantic and filial – and profound loss. In the director’s typical fashion, the plot verges at times on melodrama, and there is the constant thumping undertone of a mystery-thriller, but at its heart the film is an intimate character piece, a rich, intense portrait of a complexly exceptional life.
“an ambitious work of great emotional maturity”
Julieta is played by two actresses; for her younger years we see Adriana Ugarte, and as the character enters middle age, she is replaced by Emma Suárez. Both actresses are superb, lending their character charm and devastation with consistently potent effect. They are very convincingly the same woman – or rather, almost the same. The effect of the change is deliberate and delicate; as Almodóvar has explained, “it isn’t a matter of wrinkles, it’s something more profound, the passing of time, on the outside and on the inside.” The passing of time is integral to Julieta, and the central casting conceit is a conscious and evocative exploration of this.
Being adapted from the three short stories, the film inevitably has a certain episodic feel. Rather than manifest in disjunction, however, it helps make Julieta an incredibly rounded and convincing character. We are given the sense that we really are watching scenes from a life, choice cuts spanning years, themes, and countries. Perhaps the part of the film that seems most episodic is a scene set on a night-train, wherein Julieta meets the future father of her child. Featuring a dazzling mixture of tones, and stitched together with beautiful camerawork, the scene stands as one of the best Almodóvar has ever created. Epitomising the narrative’s approach, it functions perfectly as a standalone occurrence, but also profoundly informs the rest of Julieta’s life. The combining of different short stories is no easy task, but the director, who also penned the script, has made full and wonderful use of the opportunity.
As with all of Almodóvar’s films, the aesthetic is striking and colourful. Every shot is eye-catching, the glorious use of primary colours infusing each object, every environment, with layers of meaning. One of the patterns in Julieta’s life is the tendency to completely relocate; the variety and significance to be found in her different décor is but one way the film merges surface-level pleasures with deeper thematic signifiers. The scene in which Ugarte is seen to change into Suárez is another terrific example of this. The transition is performed in a clever, knowing flourish, and with complete clarity, but also serves as an unexpected visual call-back to an earlier scene, adding a whole new dimension to the reading of this change of actresses.
Julieta’s structure carries the potential for mistake; Almodóvar treads carefully, using the integration of timelines to effectively provide and withhold narrative information, creating a mystery with a payoff you are unable to see coming. Oftentimes in films, this is a risky move. The reveal renders much of the journey forgotten, or ignored, and a fractured timeline is left as nothing more than a protracted gimmick, a means of deploying a shock ending where otherwise it would be seen a mile away. Fortunately, Julieta is not that kind of mystery. The payoffs, when they come, are shocking only insofar as Julieta will react with shock. The film understands that there is more to clarity than just ‘finding out’, and it is only in retrospect that either the character or the viewer can achieve any true clarity at all.
Julieta is more than simply a return to form. It is a film which thrives entirely on its own merits. There is style and depth at every turn. The characters are treated with the utmost compassion, even when the story is unfailingly bleak. It is an ambitious work of great emotional maturity, a work which embraces the power and poignancy of mystery, dutifully refusing to offer up any easy answers.
Image: Pathé 2016