What would an Almodovar film be like without the major presence of women? Certainly not an Almodovar film, that’s for sure. And it is a delight to see him back in his normal ways of female-centric stories that made him renowned and acclaimed around the world by audiences and critics over.
Films of his like Volver, The Skin I Live In, All About My Mother were wondrously idiosyncratic and entertainingly melodramatic so when I saw that Julieta was apparently a throwback to those ways, I was ecstatic. Then came the Cannes film reviews which showed a mixed critical reaction and that left me a bit trepidacious. So how does Julieta hold up alongside Almodovar‘s former glories?
Emma Suarez stars as the titular character whom when we first see her, she seems to have a lot on her mind. She and her partner, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti, known for Talk to Her), are packing up and preparing to leave for Portugal, but Julieta has a chance encounter with a woman, Bea (Michelle Jenner), who was a friend of Julieta’s daughter, Antia (played by Ariadna Matin, Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares at various times). This prompts Julieta to stay in Madrid, which obviously upsets Lorenzo.
This unexpected run-in is a shock for Julieta, who has spent the better part of the past 13 years coping with her daughter’s disappearance — only, we don’t know that yet. This framework story is a placeholder to the Julieta’s past (now portrayed by Adriana Ugarte) and she recounts how she met Antia’s father, Xoan (Daniel Grao, who looks like a thinner version of Joe Manginello) and the tragic circumstances that resulted from their relationship that lead to her daughter’s disappearance.
From reading the synopsis, it sounds like a ripe story for the picking of high-camp melodrama. However, Almodovar surprisingly plays it sincere and straight-faced, which might upset some Almodovar fans. Emma Suarez is great as the adult Julieta and portrays her world-weariness and her sadness really well, whereas Adriana Ugarte is fantastic when she portrays Julieta’s youthfulness, optimism and especially her openness.
The supporting cast are fine with their character sketches, especially Rossa de Palma, who amuses every time she appears on screen with her thousand-yard stare. Almodovar knows how to compose a beautiful shot (like a sex scene only showing Julieta’s head and the reflection of a glass window), with his wallpaper pornography-like tendencies eliciting more emotion and mood than the story could ever come up with.
Which is why it is a shame that the script for Julieta lands with a heavy thud. All the supporting characters are underdeveloped (especially Xoan, who just seems like a lady-killer with a hissy fit that results with his supposedly tragic fate). The relationship between Julieta and Antia is so thin, despite the regular hints foreshadowing something more. Since the emotional investment and character development is haphazard, the visual cues do not align, and it just leaves Julieta feeling trapped and free at the same time. The many unresolved plot points, the slow and meandering pace makes the 96 minute run-time feel like two hours.
Julieta is a big disappointment and it looks like I have to wait a lot longer for Almodovar to return to form. It looks like an Almodovar film, it acts like an Almodovar film, but Julieta is just a hollow, empty shell of one.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Julieta is showing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. You can find out more information about the film and screening times here.