NYFF Film Review: JULIETA
It’s the year of the woman at the New York Film Festival, and the selection of Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, which also happens to be Spain’s submission to the Academy Awards, may as well be its central piece. A pastiche of stories of sorts, based on novels by Alice Munro, the film deals with a topic near and dear to film festivals the world over: loss, depression, and forgiveness. But while the usual beauty, passionate sexuality, and touching tragedy of Almodovar’s filmography graces Julieta, the overall product is most clearly the work of a director past his prime.
Julieta is about the life of the eponymous central character, from her roaming teenage years into adulthood and late middle age, from hope and dreams to despair and regret. Like all good Almodovar girls, she is strong-willed, sexual, and tragic. We begin with Julieta as a middle-aged woman, crippled by unexplained sadness and remorse. A chance encounter with an old friend of her daughter—whom we discover Julieta hasn’t seen in over 12 years—stirs up memories she had long buried, and upends her life. The sorrowful woman begins to write a sort of confessional to her estranged daughter, taking us along for the ride.
The story that follows is relatively straightforward in its narrative, which is not to ignore its discombobulation and even schizophrenia. One or two scenes are used to tell each episode, though two or even ten years may transpire suddenly between them. Morsels are dropped that will apparently become relevant later, though none carry the emotional weight the filmmaker desires. And, like most Almodovar films, you get the sense that Julieta is at least partly a mystery, with some big reveal awaiting a jaw-dropping moment. That scene does arrive, but when it does it seems more forced than shocking, more obvious than enigmatic.
You know something is amok from the get go, when the young Julieta is riding a train staring longingly out a snowy window. A strange man sits before her and tries to engage, but his old age and bizarre demeanor startle her and she switches cars (not before she sees a doe running alongside the train). A few moments later, the mysterious older man kills himself, sending Julieta into a spiral. What was the point of the deer? Nothing much—simply the definition of trying too hard.
As her life progresses, Julieta carries that moment of exaggerated guilt alongside a much more understandable tragedy with a droopy sadness that infects her. Nothing compares, of course, to the moment when she separates from her daughter.
The story is about many themes—religiosity, forgiveness, revenge, maturation—and about none of them at all. It wonders to and fro between these topics, touching on many but covering few. When Almodovar’s themes work, the quirky characters that populate his movies seem charming and memorable. Here, with the disjointed narrative that moves too quickly in time and too superficially in theme, they seem cartoonish. There is a mostly evil housekeeper, a sufficiently artistic mistress, and a boringly affable older gentleman.
The highlight is the unquestionable beauty of the two actresses who play the protagonist—Julieta from her teenage years is played by the mostly unknown Spanish actress Adriana Ugarte, and as a middle aged women by Emma Suarez. The film’s greatest achievement is how it seamlessly weaves between the two women in the same role in shockingly realistic ways. There is no doubt in your mind that they are the same person even though seeing them in real life shows how different they actually look. A solid use of makeup and texture allow Almodovar to achieve this central element of the film with perfection. And he projects their stunning beauty with his signature touch, Almodovar at its best.
As the plot unfolds, you will undoubtedly feel sympathy for Julieta, and you will feel respect for Julieta the film. You may even be left contemplative about the story of an entire life—about possibilities, the future, and what could have been. There are obviously central moments that define our lives and in Julieta you are let in to the moments that defined hers. But it is clearly a forced amalgam, a patchwork quilt with all too visible seams. Here, the sutures are the jaunty time jumps, the brisk changes in topics, and the forced revelations.
No doubt, aesthetic sensibilities are a perennially pleasing talent for filmmakers. The Spanish director, however, belongs more to the Café Society generation than he does to the Nocturnal Animals one. While he may have been one of the style’s most prolific interpreters, he no longer occupies that space with anything more than reliquary respect.