Not for the first time in his career, Pedro Almodóvar has gone and made a film that’s all about mothers. Though when we first meet Julieta (Emma Suárez), eagerly packing up her possessions in preparation to leave Madrid and start a new life in Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), there’s no evidence of a child to be seen in the pictures and memories scattered about her spacious apartment.
A chance encounter with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a face from a life Julieta had tried to forget, soon reveals everything. In passing, Beatriz mentions seeing Julieta’s daughter Antía while she was staying in Lake Como just a few weeks before, and in a single look – carried with such startled conviction by Emma Suárez – our eponymous heroine’s radiant façade is shattered. For as we discover, Julieta did have a daughter named Antía, but she vanished of her own accord 12 years prior, having just turned 18; leaving her mother alone to despairingly try and understand the reasons for her daughter’s disappearance.
Julieta sees Bea’s revelation as a lifeline; a final opportunity to try and recognise what it was that drove Antía away, and even perhaps a chance to reconnect with her. So, having abandoned her plans for Portugal, she returns to the apartment block she once lived in with her daughter, and sets about writing an account of her painful past, beginning with when she first met Antía’s late father, Xoan (Daniel Grao).
In contrast to his unusual, and rather undervalued pervious film I’m So Excited, Julieta sees Almodóvar once more playing the hits; although he doesn’t always manage to strike the right notes. Predominantly formed by flashbacks, his emotionally engaging script – moulded from three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro – appears designed as an obsessive inventory of the director’s distinctively dominant hallmarks & motifs, to be ticked off in turn: Julieta’s explanation of events, composed as a letter meant for Antía, consciously considering the complexity of modern life, and of motherhood – her confessions acting as a hopeful bid to cleanse her soul and find happiness in the future.
There’s an acute sense here of an artist finding himself going through the motions. Befitting his tendency for theatricality, Almodóvar builds an enigmatic mood that could be placed somewhere between the films of François Ozon, and the novels of Patricia Highsmith – the latter even being referenced directly in a moment of comedic distraction. And yet the plot paces forward on a stubbornly conventional path, with Julieta orating at great length on hers & Xoan’s doomed relationship; her antipathy towards her mother-in-law (a gloriously cantankerous Rossy De Palma); her despondency at witnessing her own mother’s mental deterioration; and her misgivings about coming a mother herself.
Almodóvar’s typically garish Spanish palette and ostentatiously dramatic score continue to suffocate the screen, but the well-considered performances of Suárez, playing the older Julieta, and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self ensure the film always has space to breathe. Suárez, in particular, is a showstopper: delicately fluctuating in her scenes between strength and vulnerability as the gaping hole in heart gradually expands: Julieta’s mounting vocal intonations as she reminisces about the past filled with optimistic promise that’s so often dashed by her desperation to be reunited with Antía.
It’s in these moments that Almodóvar truly manages to shun soapy sentimentality in favour of a more sincere sensitivity; it may be marshalled by melodrama, but Julieta remains an affectingly mournful movie.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writers: Pedro Almodóvar, Alice Munro (short stories)
Stars: Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Inma Cuesta
Runtime: 99 min
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