'Julieta': Film Review

Julieta -Still 1- Inma Cuesta  and Adriana Ugarte -H 2016
Courtesy of Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics
A tie-me-downer of a pastiche.

Pedro Almodovar's latest feature, based on stories by Alice Munro, focuses on maternal love and stars Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte as the heroine of the title.

After casting a queer eye on the mile-high life with his slight airplane farce I’m So Excited!, Pedro Almodovar replants his feet on terra firma with the straight-in-every-sense, flat and fragmentary drama Julieta. Freely adapted from three Canada-set short stories by Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, this somber story follows a Spanish Classicist (played by Adriana Ugarte in the character’s youth, then Emma Suarez in middle-age) as she falls in love, has a child and eventually loses those she cherishes most.

The film has been noisily tipped for competition in Cannes, and it’s not hard to see why, given the director’s reputation and the film’s agreeable good points. Superficially reminiscent of some of the auteur’s most female-centric stories, especially All About My Mother, it’s a solid enough assembly to satisfy the filmmakers’s most passionate devotees worldwide, especially given the classy cast (featuring a few familiar faces as well as newcomers), predictably luscious-looking craft contributions and heavy seasoning of cinematic and high-art allusions.

However, less invested viewers may feel nonplussed by the script’s meandering, unresolved mysteries, abrupt and untidily managed narrative bombshells and quizzically motivated characters. Some might even feel the whole exercise resembles a hodgepodge of tricks, tropes and name drops recycled from Almodovar's back catalog, lacking in either freshness or passion. 

In an early draft of the film’s press notes, Almodovar talks with admirable frankness about acquiring the rights to Munro’s book Runaway some time ago with a view towards translating three of its stories — "Chance," "Soon" and "Silence" — into his first English-language production, to be set in New York rather than Canada. Indeed, a copy was featured as a prop in The Skin I Live In (2011). He explains that the need to “fly with my own wings” carried him further and further from Munro’s original. As it evolved into a Spain-set story, it has manifestly become less an adaptation than, as the director puts it, “a tribute.”

In the past, Almodovar has been an astute and sensitive adapter of others’ work (Live Flesh and The Skin I Live In, for example), achieving maximum success when least abeyant to the texts that inspired the films. But contrary to what he says in the press notes, he’s been surprisingly faithful in Julieta to the stories’ key plot points, as if some kind of awed respect for the emotional reticence of Munro’s originals has held him back from tinkering too much. There is a decorousness at play here that adds an odd new flavor to the Almodovar repertoire, a politeness that’s quite unlike the lusty vulgarity of the past. Some of us may not be sure we like it.

The framing story, with classic melodrama, begins in the present with a chance encounter that will cast the story back into the past. Fiftysomething Julieta (Suarez, best known outside Spain for her work with Julio Medem) is planning to abandon her exquisitely stylish white-and-taupe Madrid apartment in order to move to Portugal with her partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti, a love interest for Almodovar before in Talk to Her).

Turning a corner in the street one day, she recognizes Bea (Michelle Jenner), the erstwhile best friend of her daughter Antia. Over coffee, Bea tells her that she had a chance encounter with Antia at Lake Cuomo, where Antia was vacationing with her children. It only emerges later that Julieta hasn’t seen her daughter since she was 18 and went on a religious retreat in the mountains. She had never come back. Julieta had employed private detectives to find her, but failing, she has tried to forget her by moving house and ditching everything that might remind her of her lost daughter. Now, discovering that her daughter knows that she still is in Madrid, Julieta abandons her plans to move to Portugal, and instead rents an apartment in the building in which she brought Antia up.

Ensconced in the new flat, besieged by floridly ugly Paisley wallpaper (in an Almodovar film, a mother can make no more noble sacrifice than this), Julieta begins to write letters to her daughter. These prompt the flashbacks which explain — sort of — how we got to this place.

It all started on a Hitchcockian train crossing the Spanish countryside, amid huge drifts of cinematic snow. A younger Julieta (now played by Ugarte, best known locally for her TV work), clad in a signature combination of strong blue and red (the palette repeats in her costumes in scene after scene, with almost distracting regularity), is importuned by a sad-eyed man in her carriage. His attempts at conversation repel her, so she goes to the dining car where she meets sensitive hunk Xoan (Daniel Grao), a married fisherman from Galicia, whose wife doesn't understand him, probably because she’s in a coma. After a tragic turn of events that night and sighting of a cinematic wolf, the two conceive Antia.

A little while later, Julieta shows up at the fisherman's picturesque seaside cottage (more real-estate porn). With convenient coincidence, it is the day of his wife's funeral. The reception from housekeeper Marian (Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma, tricked out with a faux milky eye and a frightful afro-wig to amuse the fans) is frosty, but Xoan's welcome is passionate, despite another ex-lover, Ava (Inma Cuesta), a local sculptress, still on the scene and perhaps not so very ex-. Julieta stays on and they raise their child, Antia, together.

A sultry mid-point interlude allows for an exploration of Julieta’s relationship with her parents (Susi Sanchez and Joaquin Notario), but only tangentially builds on the theme of motherhood and intergenerational conflict before the big midway tragedy that drives the rest of the plot forward. A major character is killed off, but unfortunately, the loss isn’t very affecting (despite an energetic pathetic fallacy in form of a rainstorm) because no one here is that vividly defined, apart from Julieta herself. 

Lamentably, the most sketchily defined relationship is that between Julieta and Antia (played in age-order by Ariadna Matin, Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares). We’re repeatedly informed about the intense intimacy between mother and daughter, but in actual fact it is seldom shown. When Antia finally flits, her absence is barely noticed. And when, in the last reel, there is a revelation that ought to realign everything, there have been so few hints about it that it comes as no shock.

What the twist does evoke, especially after the release of Todd Haynes’ Carol last year, is a resonance with the work of Patricia Highsmith, an author actually name-checked in the script. At their worst, Almodovar’s films deliquesce into a disparate mix of eclectic references, cultish influences and high-brow quotes that boast his exceedingly refined cultural tastes. The mix here feels excessively random and hence deeply unsatisfying. Alberto Iglesias’ unusually sparse score, Jean Claude Larrieu's limpid cinematography and production designer Anton Gomez’s rigorous color schematics should create an overarching aural and visual unity, but the whole thing just doesn’t hang together. And that ending … Highsmith would have hated its abrupt, absurd inconsequentiality.

Production companies: An El Deseo presentation in association with Filmnation Entertainment, Echolake Entertainment, Blue Lake Media Fund
Cast: Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Dario Grandinetti, Michelle Jenner, Pilar Castro, Nathalie Poza, Susi Sanchez, Joaquin Notario, Priscilla Delgado, Blanca Pares, Ariadna Martin, Rossy de Palma
Director-screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar, based on stories by Alice Munro
Producer: Esther Garcia
Executive producers: Agustin Almodovar
Director of photography: Jean Claude Larrieu
Production designer: Antxon Gomez
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Jose Salcedo
Music: Alberto Iglesias

Not rated, 96 minutes