Visually resplendent and terrifically acted, Pedro Almodóvar’s adaption of the short stories Chance, Soon and Silence, by Alice Munro, is an atypically understated work in which many of Almodóvar’s distinguishing thematic concerns are presented with uncharacteristic subtlety and decorousness. Whilst Julieta marks Almodóvar’s return to the realm of female-centric drama (from which he departed in his two most recent offerings: the scintillating psychological thriller, The Skin I Live In (2011) and the ribald sex-comedy I’m So Excited (2013)), the latest work from Spain’s most celebrated auteur is a comparably staid and divisive change in tone from the equally female-focused Almodóvar classics, All about my Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).
We are introduced to Julieta (played in the present by Emma Suárez and in the past by Adrinana Ugarte), as a seemingly contented woman, preparing to move from Spain to Portugal with her devoted and loving partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). However, the eponymous protagonist’s life and psyche are swiftly thrown into disarray after a chance meeting reveals that her estranged daughter is not only alive but a mother herself. What follows is a captivating tour through Julieta’s memories as she transcribes the key events from her past, which she believes to have led to her newly grief-stricken and guilt-ridden present. Via flashbacks we witness the passionate loves and profound losses of the young Julieta and begin to unravel the mystery of her and Antia’s twelve year estrangement.
Julieta’s cinematography is as gorgeously gaudy as any fan of Almodóvar’s aesthetic could have hoped for, both Emma Suárez and Adrinana Ugarte give performances rife with pathos, and Alberto Iglesias’s Hitchcockian score serves an intriguing directorial role within a narrative full of allusions rather than answers. Yet, despite these recognizable Almodóvarian traits, there is something distinctly unrecognizable about Julieta. Whilst faithfulness to the source material precludes Almodóvar from presenting his audience with the demimondaine characters and audaciously transgressive scenes that have consistently invigorated his previous works, Julieta is also marked by a strange lack of the enticing Almodóvarian wit, black humour and absurdity that typically enliven even his most heart-rending and savage tales. For the first time, this boundary pushing auteur has elected to abide by boundaries.
A composedly presented and measuredly paced tale, subjugated to its themes of guilt and sorrow, Julieta comes as a surprise to one familiar with Almodóvar’s subversive, dynamic and narratively complex filmography. For some of his admirers, it is a disappointment: a flat and unenjoyably sad tale whose familiarly flamboyant aesthetic fails to marry well with its subdued content. For others, Julieta is an engaging and affecting work, the surprising new territory of which is deftly and reassuringly balanced by Almodóvar’s emblematic palette and panache. Either way, Almodóvar’s latest offering proves to be an intriguing watch, and whilst it would undoubtedly serve poorly as an introduction to his oeuvre, it will leave his aficionados looking forward to whatever comes next.