Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Starring Adriana Ugarte, Emma Suarez, Daniel Grao, Rossy de Palma
Released on 26th August 2016
Folds of red fabric fill the screen. As the camera lingers, we can see there’s a heart beating underneath and, as it pans out, the fabric becomes a loose dress. It belongs to the Julieta (Emma Suarez) of the title, gently wrapping a small piece of sculpture in bubble wrap. She’s preparing to go away.
The words across the scene state this is a film from Almodovar – we all know his Christian name – and for his many fans out there the news is that he’s back on less frivolous territory than in his previous film, I’m So Excited (2013). Now he’s where he’s most comfortable, in an emotional, multi-layered female-centric movie.
That opening sequence shows the older Julieta on the brink of emigrating, until a chance meeting on the street throws all her plans in the air. She runs into her daughter’s one-time best friend, an encounter that resurrects an avalanche of memories, from the girl’s birth to her disappearance 12 years ago, prompting Julieta to confront her painful memories and make a last-ditch attempt to find her child.
While that’s the essential storyline, it comes with layer upon layer of emotions and an abundance of themes – so many, in fact, that not all of them have the chance to breathe and be fully explored. Those that are, however, are enough to make the film sufficiently complex and thoughtful. Not that Almodovar can resist a coating of melodrama, bringing on the swelling violins in the background in almost Hitchcockian fashion. That’s not the only time there’s a hint of the master of suspense lurking in the background. The younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets two different men on a train – yes, strangers – one of whom fathers her daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), that same night. And, as the film is about solving a mystery, the Hitchcock references are less of a stretch than they might initially seem.
A perennial Almodovar theme, motherhood and mother/daughter relationships, is at the centre of the film, in this case one that’s broken down. The older Julieta narrates the story of her memories and what she describes as Antia’s life, in an effort to discover why the girl left so suddenly. But what becomes apparent is that it’s Julieta’s own story and she never really knew her daughter. She only thought she did. It’s increasingly obvious as the story moves on and it’ll make at least some of the parents in the audience fidget in their seats.
The film’s strength, however, lies in the acting, especially from the two women playing Julieta. No CGI aging here. The younger one convincingly matures into her older self, elegant and sophisticated on the outside, torn apart on the inside. And, while this attempts to deal with heavyweight themes, some humour occasionally creeps in courtesy of Almodovar regular, Rossy de Palma, who plays the over-protective housekeeper working for Xoan (Daniel Grao), the younger Julieta’s lover. She disapproves of their relationship yet, ironically, adores its result, Antia.
For all its melodrama, there is something missing. Almodovar’s default setting is flamboyant, colourful and showy – and there was more than enough of that in I’m So Excited. But that film was essentially froth and this isn’t. It’s heavier, more solemn, but all the energy that went with his previous films seems to have faded, almost as if he’s empathised too much with his central character.
He’s also gone on record as saying that Julieta should be seen twice and is more enjoyable second time round when the audience knows the story. While it’s an absorbing and well-acted piece of cinema, for now a repeat viewing is stretching it.
Julieta is released in cinemas on Friday, 26 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.