Reviewed By Lesley Coffin. (Part of coverage of the Hampton International Film Festival)
It would be hard to avoid the term “lesser work” when reviewing Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film, Julieta. Pedro Almodóvar’s work has been so consistently excellent and inspiring, a film which fails to live up to his usual high quality is a disappointment for loyal fans. But like other brilliant auteurs of the medium, a lesser Pedro Almodóvar’s film still promises a cinematic experience rare for modern audiences. But it can’t be denied that with a film like Julieta, Almodóvar’s film feels more like the work of one of his best imitators than like the latest work from the master himself.
Like so many of Almodóvar’s previous films, Julieta focuses on women and female relationships. Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play the title role, Suarez as a young woman, Ugarte in middle age. Julieta is introduced in the present day, planning to move with her boyfriend, only to be reminded of events from her old life which keep her from moving forward. And so begins his narration, framed as a written explanation of what happened in her life to make her unwilling to leave Madrid. The film uses this structure as a way to turn her life story into a kind of thriller/mystery, which adds some genre fun to the film, but the device ultimately hurts the film’s storytelling. Forced to withhold so much information in her writing, the round about way she conceals what is to happen prevents Julieta from confronting her pain…and ultimately is revealed to make no sense because the recipient of this letter knows of the events Julieta won’t write about until the big reveal.
At times the film feels like it is going to be about the romantic relationship between her and Xoan (Daniel Grao) and her close friendship with his friend Ava (Inma Cuesta). Or her complicated relationship with her parents (a mother with Alzheimer’s and father already planning to remarry). But it is in actually about her relationship with her daughter, fractured over the years by Julieta having to face loss after loss in her life. By the time her daughter is a teenager, Julieta has been so burdened her with grief and guilt, her maternal relationship with her daughter has been stretched completely out of its usual shape.
While often compared to Douglas Sirk’s “women’s pictures” from the 1950s, Julieta feels particularly inspired by Sirk’s best known film, Imitation of Life. The focus on female relationships, specifically frailness of mother-daughter relationships, feels reminiscent of the relationship between both mother-daughter relationships in that film. And Almodóvar takes a very similar, almost oppressive approach as Sirk by embracing the extreme melodrama while splashing the film with exuberant visual flourishes. As per usual with Almodóvar’s films, the movie is visually stunning feast for the eyes, full of bold colors and gorgeous cinematography throughout. The mystery-thriller mood and visual pleasures of the film are so rich and lively, they almost allow you to ignore the limitation of the film’s storytelling.
While the relationships between these women are vital to the story, they are undeveloped, particularly for an Almodóvar film. Cuesta is a fantastic actress and has a lovely chemistry with Suárez, but her character is desperately unused throughout the film. And the central relationship between mother and daughter is lacking in the depth to show Julieta’s desperate love and neediness with her daughter. We are told far more than we are shown, which prevents the audience from having as strong an emotional reaction Almodóvar’s films typical provoke.
Almodóvar’s films have always felt like masterful examples of how to use visuals to tell character driven stories. But in this film, Julieta’s characters are so undeveloped, and film’s plot in such need of trimming, the visual flourishes distract, rather than enhance. That’s not to suggest Julieta isn’t an incredibly well-made piece of entertainment, frequently entertaining, funny, and touching, and full of strong performances from intelligent actresses. But fans of Almodóvar’s films may feel Julieta is simply too repetitive of his other, better-known works. It delivers what most fans wanted from an Almodóvar film, but doesn’t add much to his collection.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)