Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, 2016)
Beautifully designed and shot, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Julieta, starts out with a delicious frisson of mystery that quickly flattens into tedium. It’s a gorgeous, if inert, object, in other words, and if narrative cohesion and plot momentum are of little interest to you, then the movie has much to recommend it. If, however, one is looking for an example of Almodóvar’s often brilliant combination of visuals and innovative storytelling, better to go back and re-watch masterpieces such as Volver, Talk to Her, All About My Mother, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, to name just a few (but not the The Flower of My Secret, the structure and tone of which, such as they are, Julieta recalls).
The fault lies not with the two leads, Emma Suárez (The Mosquito Net) and Adriana Ugarte (Palm Trees in the Snow), both of whom continue in a long line of women who deliver moving performances for Almodóvar. He’s a great director of and for actresses, usually writing strong scenes that showcase their many talents. He does so here, as well, in sections, but the totality of the script is less than the sum of its parts. Despite their efforts, neither can make the material come to life beyond the power of their individual moments. Still, watching them at work is never less than a pleasure.
Each plays a different version of Julieta: Suárez the elder (meaning middle-aged); Ugarte the younger (meaning twenties). We first meet Suárez as she prepares to move from Spain to Portugal with her boyfriend. A chance encounter on the street with an old friend of her daughter’s makes her cancel these plans. As it turns, she hasn’t seen that daughter in years, and knows nothing of her life. Soon, she finds herself lost in a lengthy flashback (enter Ugarte), recalling a happy early marriage and motherhood before things took a tragic turn. Eventually – with occasional flash forwards – we work our way back to the present, where the various story threads are meant to coalesce into a satisfying conclusion. They do not. It’s all contrivance and no truth, an empty confection, lovely to look at but unsatisfying to consume.