Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has long been an institution of world cinema, establishing himself with a series of melodramatic, comic and often powerful films, mostly centred around women fighting for their existence within a social structure dictated by men. Each new film carries with it a sense of expectation, and his latest 'Julieta' comes with extra baggage after the commercial and critical failure of his last film 'I'm So Excited!' (2013). 'Julieta' seems to be familiar territory for the director - a film built around a strong female cast and characters - and so there was anticipation that this film would correct that misstep.
Julieta Arcos (Emma Suárez) has her quiet and stable life thrown into chaos when a chance encounter resurrects memories of her estranged daughter Antia. Suddenly and drastically shifting into a life of seclusion, she begins to write the story of her life for the daughter she knows will never read it, the story of Julieta as a young woman (Adriana Ugarte) meeting Antia's father Xoan (Daniel Grao), their life together and the daughter they both adore, and the series of tragedies that completely dismantle their lives.
There are few directors that can handle melodrama with the same finesse as Almodóvar, and after the preposterous levels of camp ridiculousness of 'I'm So Excited!', he seems far more comfortable and confident here. He takes a relatively simple narrative and amps up the drama and the stakes, not just on the page but in the execution. 'Julieta' is less a piece of realism than it is two steps away from a Spanish telenovela, filled with rich visuals and textures from production designer Antxón Gómez and costume designer Sonia Grande. Strangely, 'Julieta' seems to be pulling its influences liberally from Hitchcock, even though it doesn't resemble a thriller in any way. There are flashes of 'Vertigo' and 'Marnie' in the heightened emotions and reactions of the characters, and Xoan's housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar's long-term collaborators) feels cut from the same cloth as Mrs Danvers in 'Rebecca' (1940). It's a family drama with an unexpected Hitchcockian bent, aided enormously by the unexpectedly menacing score from Alberto Iglesias. It's a fascinating texture to go with, but while the melodrama could only be handled this well by Almodóvar, it does occasionally feel a tad disingenuous. Perhaps this style of storytelling has moved on, or perhaps it lacks the extra bite that made his 'The Skin I Live In' (2011) so memorable. There's no question that 'Julieta' is an excellent piece of filmmaking, and certainly knows exactly the right place to end its story, but there's also nothing overly special about it. It's memorable, but only to a point.
The entire female cast seem to have an intrinsic understanding of what the story needs, and are uniformly superb.
A film like this though rests on its performances, not just to hold the drama together but to hold the style together as well. The entire female cast seem to have an intrinsic understanding of what the story needs, and are uniformly superb. Emma Suárez dances on the knife's edge between emotional stability and instability, and isn't always subtle about it, but here it becomes an advantage, matching the tone of the technical work around her. It's a harder section of Julieta's life to play with than the section covered by Adriana Ugarte, as it's essentially the end of the arc without any preparation, but she often lands it beautifully. Ugarte does steal the film though, finding Julieta's fire, passion and ultimate tragedy, and it's impressive to watch her chart this woman's growth from young woman to wife to mother. There's also superb work from Inma Cuesta as Xoan's artist friend Ava and Priscilla Delgado as teenage Antia, but de Palma does steal every scene she is in with a delectable performance both menacing and very camp.
There has been some talk that this is Pedro Almodóvar's "return to form", but one bad film didn't mean the director was in any kind of trouble, especially after the sublime 'The Skin I Live In'. In fact, 'Julieta' might be seen as a slightly more minor entry in his filmography. It's a very fine film, thoroughly entertaining and affecting, with tremendous design and terrific performances, but there's something tired about it. This doesn't have the freshness you would have expected or the pop you would have anticipated from Almodóvar returning to smaller, more intimate dramas. It feels like a telenovela on a grander scale, and certainly one of tremendous craft, but while there is a moment of surprising bite at the very end, it's almost too little too late. 'Julieta' is certainly a film worth your time, and definitely one that leaves an impression, but perhaps not as strong as one would have expected.