With his latest colour-soaked melodrama Julieta*****, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has made my favourite film of the year.
He’s done this a few times before, actually, with Talk To Her (2002) and Volver (2006), and Bad Education (2004) came pretty close. Julieta certainly belongs in the company of those films – in fact, it may even be better.
After some minor yet stylish works (and the ridiculous airline campery of I’m So Excited) this 20th feature film is a return to Almodovar’s favourite themes of mothers and daughters, grief and comas, the past catching up with the present. It is saturated with his signature primary palette of reds and blues, haunted by beautifully plaintive music and populated by mysterious figures harbouring secrets.
Julieta is the name of the main character, played by two actresses. Emma Suarez embodies her first as a seemingly happy, if guarded middle-aged woman in Madrid, about to move to Portugal with a handsome, greying lover Lorenzo. However, in a chance encounter, she bumps into Bea in the street, a childhood friend of her daughter Antia, whom Bea excitedly tells her that she’s actually seen recently in Italy, by Lake Como.
The news appears to floor Julieta, who calls off her relationship with Lorenzo (poor chap) and moves apartment, back to the Madrid neighbourhood she loved, years ago. She begins writing a letter to Antia, the voiced-over thought processes of which melt into a prolonged flashback during which we learn (nearly) all about this mother and daughter.
Adriana Ugarte plays the young Julieta, who meets a hunky widower Xoan, on a train (very Hitchcockian) with whom she falls irresistibly in love. Already pregnant from their first sexual encounter, she visits him in his northern fishing town, where he lives under the watchful and now scornful eye of his housekeeper – a typically magnificent and meaty turn from Almodovar regular Rossy De Palma. From Strangers on a Train, suddenly it’s Rebecca.
Julieta can’t help feeling uneasy about Xoan’s continued friendship with a beautiful but wild local sculptor (Imma Cuesta). The music screeches in a minor chord, storm clouds gather and there are harbingers in the harbour.
Grief is always a taut violin string away in Almodovar films. Julieta visits her father in the sun-baked south, only to discover he’s having an affair with the housekeeper while her dying mother lies incapacitated.
Time jumps and suddenly, we find Julieta herself is paralysed by tragedy and the movie’s central flourish occurs, when one actress morphs into the other, merging identities and adding to the complexity of this character.
Adapted from three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, Julieta the film is an elegant, vibrant puzzle on first viewing and it’s best to surrender to its waves of instinct and emotion. Something almost ineffable builds amid its mysteries, the flows and eddies of time and tides.
I usually find myself crying – not weeping, but shedding a single, somewhat theatrical and salty tear – during Almodovar’s best films. Their moods seep into your cracks, a mix of melancholy and melodrama that combines to fill in the gaps in his plots and time structures.
The glorious trick of this fabulous film is that it although it plays out like a mystery – “I felt like a character in a Patricia Highsmith novel”, says the voice-over at one key moment – it is really only about self-discovery. We unravel the complexities of Julieta just as she begins to reveal them to herself. And we realise that while time has been painfully wasted and abused, it is never too late to heal and that there is always hope.