Julieta played October 7 and 8, and will play again October 16, as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically beginning December 21.
Alice Munro, the author of the three stories on which he based his latest film, “inspired me to a different way of telling a story,” said director Pedro Almodóvar at the Q&A after the New York Film Festival press screening of Julieta, later adding: “I tried to make a drama, not a melodrama, which is my natural inclination.” No kidding. Almodóvar’s attempt to channel Munro may be in keeping with the shift visible in his work since 1999’s All About My Mother, as his female characters become more complex and less cartoonish, their inner lives almost as well-rounded as his pulchritudinous leading ladies’ tightly encased curves. Still, the flamboyant Spanish king of baroque plots and peacock exteriors is one of the last people you might expect to adapt the understated Canadian master’s realistic stories about resolutely ordinary people.
When we first meet Julieta’s title character, she is a content but subdued middle-aged woman about to go away with her devoted boyfriend (Darío Grandinetti). But her enviable life is upended when she gets a stray piece of news about Antía, the daughter she lost touch with years earlier. The film then cuts back and forth in time as present-day Julieta unravels, moving back to her old neighborhood and becoming wan and lined as she searches obsessively for Antía (Priscilla Delgado as a girl and Blanca Parés as a young woman). Meanwhile, the gorgeous young Julieta gets married and raises her daughter. Her domestic life is near-idyllic, but she grows increasingly haunted by the guilt she experiences after witnessing two tragedies that she feels responsible for, most devastatingly the loss of her husband, Xoan (Daniel Grao). As the two storylines converge to a present-day conclusion, the audience learns what caused the rift between Julieta and Antía and Julieta becomes painfully aware of how little she knew about the thoughts and feelings of the daughter she used to feel so terribly, perhaps even unhealthily, close to.
As always in Almodóvar’s movies, meticulously chosen costumes, makeup and settings go a long way toward telling the story, like the contrast between Julieta and Antía’s cosy old apartment with its grass-green walls and the pristinely impersonal, mid-century modern apartment Julieta retreats to after her daughter has left. Almodóvar’s trick of having two actresses sharing the part underlines the difference between the less careworn young Julieta and her troubled middle-aged self. Adriana Ugarte, whose soulful black eyes, blond hair and luscious curves give her the look of a slightly rounder-edged Megyn Kelly, plays the young Julieta in bright, form-fitting clothes and bold geometric jewelry, while Emma Suárez’s hooded eyes and slightly rueful smile give the older Julieta a guarded, recessive quality that is echoed by her earth-tone, enveloping clothing.
In the end, Almodóvar’s can’t entirely resist the melodrama, sending a character off to drown in a raging storm after a marital spat and shooting handled in creepy close-ups that bring to mind Margaret Hamilton’s witch from The Wizard of Oz, and he stays a bit too much on the surface to plumb the characters’ emotional lives as deeply as Munro. His penchant for things like a slow pan up young Julieta’s voluptuous, blue-clad legs as she lies next to Xoan on the emotionally volatile night that they met keeps us too often focused more on how his characters look than on how they feel.
Still, there’s a melancholy sweetness in both actresses’ performances that makes Julieta’s predicament touching. Almodóvar’s steady hand guides us expertly through her story, teasing us just enough with the mystery of Antía’s disappearance while creating compositions of such Sirkian beauty that there’s a perverse pleasure even in witnessing Julieta’s pain. If you’re looking for a pitch-perfect, emotionally devastating interpretation of a Munro story, find Sarah Polley’s brilliant Away From Her. In the meantime, you could do worse than Almodóvar’s unlikely amalgamation. It may tango on the story’s surface rather than plumbing its depths, but it’s a lovely dance.