Who the Hell Is Juliette (1997): Mexican Carlos Marcovich Docu

(Quien diablos es Juliette)

Telluride Film Festival, August 31, 1997–Carlos Marcovich, a young, gifted Mexican director, makes a splashy feature debut with Who the Hell Is Juliette? a stylishly innovative, vastly entertaining film about two stunningly beautiful women whose lives change as a result of crisscrossing paths: a vivacious Cuban teenager and a Mexican fashion model.

Theatrical prospects are excellent for a truly cross-cultural film brimful of intriguing insights about personal identity, family life, sexual politics and, not to be underestimated, the complex and rewarding relationship between an open-minded filmmaker and his eccentric, unpredictable subjects.

Juliette (Yuliet) Ortega, a 16-year Cuban girl who lives in Havana with her relatives, makes a mesmerizing protagonist. Her father left Cuba when she was a baby to start a new life in New Jersey, hoping that his wife will follow him. But a year later, Juliette’s mother committed suicide (setting the house on fire) and the young girl moves into her grandmother’s house. Not surprisingly, living in a terrible barrio, Juliette drifted into prostitution. But despite poverty and harsh living conditions, she somehow developed a fun-loving, streets-smart sense of survival.

Born in Mexico, Fabiola Quiroz, 23, is a melancholy model with the most beautiful and sad green eyes; she’s called “cat’s eyes” and there’s mystery over how she acquired their color. Also a product of a broken home (her father was killed by a truck), Fabiola was physically abused by her mom. Fabiola meets Juliette when she comes to Cuba to shoot a music video. They become instant friends and, later, Fabiola arranges for Juliette to audition at a modeling agency (a great sequence) in Mexico City.

A large gallery of secondary characters enlivens the proceedings. Prominent among them is Juliette’s religious brother, Michele. Unlike his sister, who thinks that “sex is sex” and can’t even remember the number of Italian tourists she has slept with, Michele thinks that sex is a “holy matter.”

Juliette claims that she doesn’t miss and doesn’t want to see her father, but no one believes her. Indeed, one of the film’s most emotional moments is an on-camera reunion between Juliette and her father, which was initiated by the director after a series of phone calls between them.

Defying easy categorization, Who the Hell is Juliette benefits from the intellectual and cinematic flexibility in which it was created. Blurring the lines between conventional documentaries and fictional narratives, the film tracks two fascinating women at a crucial time in their lives. Shot without a screenplay, the story evolved as it went along, with Marcovich serving as participant observer. Spanning 15 months (from October 1995 to January 1997), pic moves swiftly around four cities: Havana, Mexico City, New York, and Los Angels, making it an engrossing, mulit-cultural film.

The film is laced with shards of humor and irony, generated by the ever-changing lives of its heroines in an unforeseeable manner. Throughout, characters talk to the camera, and at one point even speculate about the proper ending of the movie. Indeed, some of the funniest observations are actually about filmmaking. Says Fabiola: “directors waste a lot of time on the set, drinking coffee and choosing how many women to screw.” And Juliette speculates that the fictional character she plays should die “from whoring, not from hunger.”

Marcovich’s open-ended approach and free-form style result in a non-linear structure that makes good use of his former experience in music videos, integrating eye-catching fashion shows, dynamic music sequences, and scenes from Mexican mellers (starring Salma Hayek) that enrich the central yarn. The film progresses at a remarkably sweeping tempo, without ever sacrificing the serious nature of the observations made.

At one point, Juliette tells her director, “If you show this movie in public, the audience would leave the theater.”

Judging by the viewers’ enthusiastic responses at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests, however, on this occasion, Juliette proves to be wrong.