Pedro Almodovar has moved into full Douglas Sirk mode with “Julieta,” an adaptation of several stories by Alice Munro, and while the result might not meet with enthusiastic approval from fans of the Spanish filmmaker’s more outlandish efforts, it should win praise from those who appreciate not only his more subdued films but those of a director like Todd Haynes.
The title character is played by two fine actresses. We first meet Julieta in the person of Emma Suarez. She’s in late middle age about to leave Madrid and move to Portugal with her significant other Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). At the last moment, however, the plan is derailed when she bumps into Bea (Michelle Jenner), who was once her daughter Antia’s best friend and tells her that she has recently seen Antia in the city. That comes as a shock to Julieta, who hasn’t seen the girl for years. Antia, we learn, disappeared from her mother’s life after going off to a religious retreat, and Julieta has despaired of ever seeing her again. Now she rents an apartment in the building where once they lived together and wanders the streets hoping to encounter her.
The film now jumps back in time to dramatize the initial meeting during a train ride between the young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), a classics teacher, and handsome Xoan (Daniel Grao), the fisherman who will become Antia’s father. The trip, during which they have sex, is punctuated by the death of a fellow passenger that foreshadows the tragedy to come, but nine months later Julieta travels to Xoan’s coastal village and they wed, since Xoan’s long-comatose wife has conveniently died as well.
Despite those tragic circumstances the marriage is generally happy despite some rough spots. The most obvious is Xoan’s relationship with Ava (Inma Cuesta), a local sculptor with whom, their housekeeper Marion (Rossy de Palma) nastily implies, he is having an affair. There is also an intimation of marital discord in Julieta’s visit to her parents, during which it becomes clear that her father (Joaquin Notario) is neglecting his ill wife (Susi Sanchez) in favor of their much younger live-in housemaid. Nonetheless the mother-daughter bond between Julieta and Antia (played in ascending chronological order Ariadna Matin, Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares) remains firm until a tragedy that brings the two of them to Madrid alone. Some years later the girl will disappear, and Julieta is forced to deal with the painful reality of her absence—a wrenching torment that Almodovar conveys beautifully in a montage of scenes with birthday cakes.
The final part of the film turns to Julieta’s search for closure through a reconnection with her daughter—to which a note of future possibilities is added by the return of a different character. One might argue whether the final reel is too explicit of insufficiently direct in explaining why Julieta’s life has gone as it has, but as Almodovar fashions things, there is at least a revelation that brings a hint of optimism to the story’s final moments, even if it also adds some tragic symmetry to the familial tale.
The performances throughout “Julieta” are fine, with both Suarez and Ugarte hitting the right marks and Grao, Cuesta and Grandinetti adding strong supporting turns. Fans of the director will especially appreciate the appearance of de Palma, a long-time colleague of his. As is often the case with the Spanish auteur’s work, however, what one might remember longest are the visuals, marked—in Antxon Gomez’s production design, Sonia Grande’s costumes and Jean-Claude Larrieu’s lensing, by lush colors and some awesome vistas. Jose Salcedo’s editing keeps the shifts in time and place clear, and while Alberto Iglesias’ score might not be as sumptuous as some of his previous efforts, it still registers alongside the images.
A similar observation might be made of “Julieta.” Perhaps it doesn’t equal Almodovar’s best films, but compared to trifle like his last, “I’m So Excited,” it represents a definite return to form.