Screens

Review: Pedro Almodovar's "Julieta" takes on grief and guilt

"Julieta" is wrought without going over

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The closing shot of Julieta shows a car driving along a winding road high above the ocean shore. We see the car round a curve, but the camera continues forward over the edge. For the people in the vehicle the journey continues, while the audience is reminded of the leap being taken. We won't learn what happens next. We don't need to.

Julieta was going to be Pedro Almodovar's first English-language film. The man that brought the world The Skin I Live In, All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Live Flesh and so many more, optioned three short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro – Chance, Soon, and Silence – for the project.


All three tales were about a Vancouver woman named Juliet Henderson. Almodovar intended to move the location to New York City. But as the filmmaker worked with the material his plans changed – Juliet became Julieta, the location moved to Madrid, and the language became Spanish. According to what I've read, the stories remain mostly true to the source material, while the film is unabashed Almodovar. He refers to the finished product as a tribute to Munro's stories rather than an adaptation.

While far from peak Almodovar, Julieta is absorbing. Parts of it seem rushed, parts of it seem like rough sketches, but it never gets dull. The film deals with grief and guilt, and how dense we can be.

Emma Suarez plays middle aged Julieta, who is looking for her long absent daughter. As the mother reflects on the curves her life has taken, we move into the past, where twentysomething Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte (the switch from older to younger actor is routine. The switch back is beautifully handled in a mid-scene transition).

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Key to everything is a fateful train ride. Julieta is approached by a sad man looking for company. He makes her uncomfortable and she ditches him. In the dining car, she meets a gorgeous fisherman named Xoan (Damiel Grao). He's confident and well spoken and married to a woman in a coma. Julieta and Xoan hit it off and get it on, conceiving their future daughter. The train ride is interrupted by a crash, by the way. Julieta will manage to feel guilty for it.

After getting settled, Julieta travels to Xoan's lovely seaside cottage where the funeral for his wife has just concluded. How convenient! How Almodovardian! Julieta is greeted with suspicion by Maria the housekeeper (played by Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma), but the day perks up when Xoan arrives.

Here's all you will know about Xoan: He's handsome and rugged, with a fine torso. In addition to his fling on the train, he meets with long-time friend Ava (Inma Cuesta) for "a screw" from time to time. It's no big deal, he assures Julieta. They couple up, the housekeeper defrosts, and daughter Antia (played in chronological order by Ariadna Matin, Priscilla Delgado, and Blanca Pares) is born.

I could go on, but this seems like a good point to stop. Julieta is one of those films where you could list every incident depicted in the characters' lives without spoiling anything, because the film is about Julieta and her great grief and guilt more than anything. Some angled Twilight Zone camera positioning and a score by Alberto Iglesias that occasionally seems inspired by a Hitchcock film gives the production the ominous feel of a thriller. That's all well and good, but the bright colors and tortured faces make it clear we are smack in the middle of an Almodovar melodrama.

I long for the days when Almodovar created movies that made me dizzy. He may still surprise us, but in the meantime, I'll settle for a mid-level offering like Julieta — which is wrought without going over. It keeps to the road, gliding around curves and assuming guilt for anything that interferes with the ride.

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