Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Imma Cuesta, Dario Grandinetti, Rossy de Palma, Michelle Jenner, Pilar Castro, Nathalie Poza, Joaquín Notario, Susi Sánchez, Priscilla Delgado, Blanca Parés
MPAA Rating: (for some sexuality/nudity)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 12/21/16 (limited); 2/3/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 2, 2017
Julieta is a subdued melodrama. That might seem to be a contradiction, but it's not. It's a matter of the material, which definitively is melodrama, and the approach to that material. The second part is what matters more to the kind of film this is, and in that regard, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar (crediting himself only by his surname) approaches this story (adapted from three interconnected short stories by Alice Munro) with a bigger picture in mind, instead of merely looking to emphasize each, new plot development as it comes. His eye is on what this decades-spanning story means to its characters, as well as what lessons we can take from it, instead of trying to elicit or manipulate the audience's emotional reactions when another obstacle arrives.
It would be easy to see how this tale could be told in a way that could be dubbed melodramatic, too. The story features an accident and illness, as well as secrets, lies, and omissions, not to mention an antagonistic housekeeper, whose machinations are as subtle as her death-stares are obvious. These, though, are just plot elements. Almodóvar, whose tone in his work sometimes attempts to match the often outrageous turns of his stories, doesn't discard those plot developments, but he also doesn't play them up to a showy level.
In other words, when a woman discovers that her husband has been involved a tragic accident, Almodóvar's camera doesn't linger on the woman's face. He instead repeats a shot of a close-up of a tattoo on the husband's upper arm. The first time we see the design—of a heart with two letters, representing the man's wife and daughter, and a boat—it leads to the woman kissing the tattoo with affection. The second time, the flesh on which the tattoo was drawn is cut, and the woman apprehensively touches it, as if not feeling her husband's skin is the only thing keeping reality at bay.
The woman is Julieta (Emma Suárez), who currently lives in Madrid but is about to move to Portugal with her writer boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Her life seems carefree as she packs her belongings, but while on a trip to the store, Julieta encounters a woman whom she hasn't seen in decades. The woman was a friend of Julieta's daughter, and she tells Julieta that she unexpectedly came across the daughter not too long ago.
Almodóvar shoots a good deal of Suárez's performance in close-up, and it's obvious to see why. In this scene, note the way her performance serves as a component of the story's exposition. She begins the scene in the pleasant surprise of seeing a semi-familiar face, and as the information about Julieta's daughter comes up, her manner shifts. There's a lot happening in this few minutes of Suárez's performance, as Julieta talks as if she knows about her daughter's current life while betraying that idea with the tone of her questions on the subject. She's trying to gain information without coming across as if she is.
That tension becomes apparent when Julieta returns home and begins writing a letter to her daughter. The two have not spoken for a long time, and the letter is her attempt to explain to why that is.
Thus begins an extended flashback, which details how a younger Julieta (played by Adriana Ugarte) met two men on a train one night—Xoan (Daniel Grao), the second man, was the daughter's father and the first man threw himself in front of the train. Her guilt over the stranger's death, which came after but was not the result of her refusal to talk to him, leads to Xoan and Julieta bonding—both in conversation and in the biblical sense—during the remainder of the trip.
He later sends her a letter, and she takes it as an invitation to visit him. Julieta arrives on the day of the funeral of Xoan's wife, who had been gravely ill. They soon marry, and Julieta gives birth to Antía (played at different ages by Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés). A conflict arises on account of suspicions about Xoan's artist friend Ava (Imma Cuesta) and the constant meddling of his housekeeper (played by Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma).
These, though, are just some of the details. The plot continues with tragedy, grief, guilt, trying to piece together a shattered life, and, eventually, Antía's sudden and unannounced disappearance as soon as she reaches the age of adulthood. The structure of Almodóvar's screenplay is such that the story plays out as a mystery, but the important factor is that it's mystery in which we already know the ultimate conclusion: Antía exits her mother's life, and Julieta is alone.
What happens in order to get these characters to those places is important, of course, but not in the way we might expect. A traditional approach to melodrama would focus specifically on those details. A generalized mystery tale primarily would be concerned with how those events unfolded to reach the final destination. Almodóvar may have his attention on the "how" and "what," but his central focus is on how these events affect Julieta and what those events mean to a life lived through selfish secrets, unaddressed guilt, and, to a certain extent, a misplaced sense of self-righteousness.
We know where these will lead, of course, which also makes Almodóvar's film something of a morality tale. However one might label Julieta, it's an affecting film, guided by a filmmaker who refuses to settle for the obvious.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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