Julieta (2016): Almodovar’s Return to Subtle Cinema of Women

julieta_poster_almodovarAfter making the inconsequential airplane farce I’m So Excited! (arguably his weakest film in a career spanning 36 years), Pedro Almodovar is back on terra firma with Julieta, a femme-driven tale that justifies his title as a great woman’s director, or rather a filmmaker who has specialized in telling emotionally touching stories about all kinds of women–of various ages, social classes, professions.

Julieta has already opened in Spain, but it receives its high-prtofile international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (in competition).  Almodovar has received the Best Director Prize at Cannes Festival in 1999 for All About My Mother, my all-time favorite film of his.

 

 

julieta_almodovarSony Pictures Classics, the loyal distributor of Almodovar’s films, will release Julieta in the US in December, during the awards season, though the film has already received mixed reviews in Spain and Cannes Festival, and the word of mouth is also not particularly strong.

At this point in his career, Almodovar, who is 66, and has made 20 films since his 1980 debut, is a reliable director and perhaps one of the few who has made four masterpieces in a row: All About My Mother, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1999; Talk to Her, which won Best Writing Oscar in 2002; Bad Education, which opened the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and Volver, which garnered Best Actress Oscar nomination on its leading lady Penelope Cruz in 2006.

In some of its themes and characters, Julieta recalls several of the aforementioned films, though it doesn’t display anymore the status and vision of Almodovar as Spain’s enfant terrible.  The new film hails from the more mature Spaniard, which may explain why it is too conventional, too fractured for its own good, and–surprisingly–a bit flat.

julieta_5_almodovarLoosely adapted from three Canada-set short stories by Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, this straight (but not straightforward) tale centers on a woman who’s a Spanish Classicist who loves teaching, played by two actresses, Adriana Ugarte as the youngster, and then Emma Suarez as the middle-aged heroine.

A rather somber, even gloomy tale of love and loss, Julieta depicts a woman who falls hard in love, bears a child out of the wedlock, and then goes through a series of disappointments and tragedies that include the loss of the two men she had loved, estrangement from her only daughter, and death of most people who had mattered in her life.

Upon acquiring Munro’s book Runaway, (which is briefly displayed as a prop in Almodovar’s The Skin I Lived In), initially, the director planned to translate three of its stories–“Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence”–into would have become his first English-language production, to be set in New York (rather than Canada) and to star Meryl Streep!  For various reasons, he then abandoned that plan.

julieta_4_almodovarWhen the tale begins, the titular heroine (played by Suarez), now in her fifties, decides to leave her lush Madrid apartment and move to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti, who had appeared in Almodovar’s Talk to Her). In a chance encounter on the street (a common device in the director’s work), she meets Bea (Michelle Jenner), the best friend of her daughter Antia, and is shocked to learn that Antia was in Lake Cuomo with her children.

Julieta had not seen her daughter for a long time–ever since the latter attended a religious retreat– despite her efforts and those of private detectives to locate her.  Both nostalgic about the past and pragmatic about the present, Julieta rents an apartment in the same house where she had once raised Antia. Out of desperation, Julieta begins writing letters to her daughter, hoping to reconnect with her.

julieta_3_almodovarIn the film’s first flashback, set on a train, which is perhaps homage to Hitchcock’s 1951 cult movie, Strangers on a Train, we are introduced to the younger Julieta (now played by Ugarte), where she meets a handsome man, Xoan (Daniel Grao), who turns out to be a married fisherman from Galicia, whose wife is in coma.  One thing leads to another and the two have quick sex on the train, after which Julieta gets knocked up and gives birth to a girl.

Years later, unfazed, Julieta shows up at the fisherman’s seaside residence on a day which “happens” to be the funeral day of his wife. The housekeeper Marian (Almodovar’s regular Rossy de Palma) immediately dislikes her, but Xoan, despite dating a new, younger woman, encourages Julieta t0 stay on so that they can raise Antia together.

From that point on, the melodrama becomes too sketchy in trying to explore the relationships between Julieta and her own parents, and especially the complicated bond between Julieta and her own daughter Antia.  Unlike such wonderful sagas as All About My Mother, in which various intergenerational bonds (mother and son, a nun and her parents), or High Heels (mother and daughter), the proceedings in Julieta feel schematic and a tad too shallow–especially by Almodovar’s  standards.

I am mot sure how long Almodovar has worked on the scenario, but unlike previous ones, this one has a convoluted structure, too many transitions from past to present and then back to the past, several unresolved relationships, and more than one mystery that remains unexplained until the very end.

More important problems are manifest in the lack of dynamic energy in both the narrative and the visual imagery, two of the auteur’s signature pieces.  For a move whose running time is only 96 minutes, a good deal of information about the characters, their complex relationships, and ultimate fate is conveyed through voice-over narration, letters that are read loud by the writers or recipients, and telephone conversations, all strategies that lack emotional immediacy and increase the distance between the viewers and the characters.

julieta_2_almodovarThough technically solid, and for the most part engaging, Julieta is a second-tier Almodovar feature, lacking the customary freshness, raw emotionalism, and committed passion to the story and characters that Almodovar has evinced in his best work. Additionally, there is not much humor and the sex scenes are brief and generic, serving more as plot points than as expressions of eros or love.