Almodovar delves into women (again) in Hitchcockian ‘Julieta’
Pedro Almodovar shot to international fame on a reputation grounded as a director of dark-natured but colorfully-decorated women’s comedies — sexually frank, slightly desperate yet as bright as the Gaudi architecture of his native Madrid. But as prevalent as that theme is in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother or I’m So Excited, Almodovar has an equal facility as a Hitchcockian stylist. He’s a master at brooding mysteries filled with whispered tension and primal desire. At his best, he’s like a Spanish Douglas Sirk interpreting a Patricia Highsmith novel.
For Julieta, however — his latest, now at the Angelika Film Center — he’s adapting not Highsmith, but three short stories by Nobel laureate Alice Munro. While not as breathlessly compelling as his best thrillers (The Skin I’m In and Bad Education), Julieta seamlessly synthesizes character study and psychological thriller as only Almodovar can.
We first encounter Julieta as a middle-aged woman (Emma Suarez), rummaging through her papers, finalizing a long-planned move to Portugal with her fiancé. While packing her last boxes, she bumps into Beatriz, a girlhood friend of Julieta’s estranged daughter Antia, whom Bea has recently seen. The sudden news — Antia is alive!?! — leads Julieta to cancel her move, takes a new apartment and reflect on the long-festering cause of Antia’s disappearance, which she has hid from everyone.
In flashbacks, we see the young Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte), dreamily recalling her romance with Antia’s father Xoan, a fisherman; her tensions with her own parents; and the complicated relationship she develops with Xoan’s friend Ava. Slowly, she realizes she doesn’t really know anyone in her life … and they don’t know her.
There’s a battle churning in Julieta for dominance: Plot or personality? The results are a draw. Antia feels like a secondary character, one we don’t identify with nearly so much as her mother. It’s Julieta’s reaction to what happens (someone has betrayed someone else … who you blame, though, is up for grabs) that forms the emotional core. In some respects, it’s most reminiscent of Nocturnal Animals, where a woman also begins to question how she ended up where she is after an encounter prompts self-reflection.
Rather than resulting in a standstill, however, the opposite forces merely illuminate the inscrutability of knowing someone else, of how we forgive and why, of how sexuality and fanaticism and deception fuel the fires of mistrust. If it sounds heady, well, the appeal of Almodovar is that he’s never far from accessibility. To tell you more about Julieta, though, is to encroach upon its surprises. It’s a film that benefits from letting it wash over you.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2017.