He is now 68, but in recent years Pedro Almodóvar hasn’t been making films like an old master. His astonishing The Skin I Live In (2011) blended identity politics with Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, in a mix that apparently disturbed even his ardent fans (I think it may be one of his greatest films). I’m So Excited (2013) was either too silly or not silly enough in its embrace of zany comedy. But then who wants Almodóvar, once the bad boy of international cinema, to behave like an old master?
Like it or not, Julieta has an unmistakably masterly touch. This is a controlled, sure-handed drama, made so that every scene is in place. The acting is uniformly excellent, the production design impeccable. Almodóvar’s expressive use of color is wonderful to watch—he might be making a Technicolor Hollywood melodrama in the 1950s. I wonder if this mastery itself could explain why the movie, strong in many ways, also feels just a bit vacuum-sealed.
The gorgeous opening shot sets the tone: We stare at the sensuous waving of deep-red drapes, their folds leaving no doubt that this will be a female-centric movie. They’re not drapes, it turns out, but a kaftan worn by our protagonist and title character (played in the present-day scenes by Emma Suárez), who is preparing to move away from Madrid. But a chance encounter with her daughter’s childhood friend sets Julieta on a different course, and sets the movie on a series of long flashbacks to her younger years. In the past, Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) experiences a series of events that seem to have left her with long-simmering feelings of guilt.
The movie is full of letters that carry great importance, a reminder of how uncinematic e-mail is. There are also chance encounters and accidents that leave a mark. One of the earliest is young Julieta’s rebuff of the interest—innocent? creepy?—of an older man during a train ride. A few minutes later, he is dead, apparently by suicide, during which time Julieta has met Xoan (Daniel Grao), who will occupy a crucial role in her life. A different letter later brings Julieta to his home by the sea, where Almodóvar indulges in some pleasantly sinister memories of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, especially given the recent death of Xoan’s wife and the stern presence of a hatchet-faced housekeeper (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma), who announces, when Julieta arrives, “I’m in charge of the house.” You get the feeling she’s not talking about keeping the place clean.
If some of the plot turns invoke Hitchcock, it’s more the Hitchcock of difficult pictures like Marnie than the master’s fun thrillers. In the film’s very elegant look and roundabout emotions, Almodóvar also pays homage to the glossy, color-soaked 1950s dramas directed by Douglas Sirk. Each shot is a formal arrangement of color and composition—actually, each shot is practically a floral arrangement, given how pretty it all looks. At the heart of all this is a mystery that Almodóvar chooses not to fill in: Why did Julieta become estranged from her daughter (Blanca Pares) when the latter was a young woman? This is where Almodóvar strays from Hitchcock and Sirk; he doesn’t answer all the questions posed by the plot.
This leads to a bold ending that refers again to letters sent but seems to withhold a final resolution. I think Almodóvar is right to leave it at that, as the main business of telling the story has ended anyway; anything more would be a Hallmark card. Julieta may be a minor entry in the director’s work, but it is finely wrought, like a novella. Perhaps it is no surprise that Almodóvar’s script is drawn from three short stories by Alice Munro, the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author. One does not usually ponder the similarities between Spanish and Canadian cultures, but there you have it—the language of tangled family dynamics and quiet guilt is truly universal. Julieta, Rated R. Opens Fri., Jan. 27 at Guild 45th.