★★★ / ★★★★
Based on three short stories by Alice Munro, “Julieta,” directed by Pedro Almodóvar, is likely to frustrate viewers because it dares to end right at the climax. However, audiences with discerning eyes and minds will recognize that this astute decision exactly fits the material’s themes involving broken relationships and longing. It shouldn’t end any other way.
Followers of Almodóvar’s work may feel a bit disappointed because gone are the usual pavonine displays of primary colors or colors that complement one another. We do encounter his signature style of employing the color red to highlight an object, a living space, or an emotion, but this technique comes across as out of place, almost as a tool to get us to pay attention when there really is not much to see or even think about. Yet, again, I admired the filmmaker’s ability to play with expectations, even daring to alienate or render his niche viewers off-balance, because a feeling of disappointment and emptiness pervades the life of the story’s central character.
Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play Julieta, the older and younger, respectively, and they command a fascinating way of being. Although the two may not look alike physically, they do share an air of vulnerability, almost a certain proclivity for sadness—which works effectively in dramatic scenes when secrets kept buried for years finally reach the surface. In Ugarte’s scenes, told in an extended flashback, there is a feeling of neediness to her, kind of like a wounded bird you’d want to take home and care for. In Suárez’s scenes, which take place in the present, she balances obsession and depression without playing extremes. We believe that the aging woman is the young woman we’ve come to know in the past.
As expected from an Almodóvar picture, there is generous use of closeups. This is a filmmaker who loves images of women—faces of women, to be exact—even if the characters, or the performers, do not look their best. The wrinkles around one’s mouth, dark shadows under one’s eyes, the asymmetry of one’s face—these make the characters’ histories all the more convincing; the more worn they look, the more we believe that they’ve lived the lives being portrayed. Sometimes the appearance of polish in a drama might as well be a physical wall between the audience and the characters.
The driving force of the film is a question: What are the circumstances that lead to Julieta’s crippling loneliness? Some might suggest that the story is about a mother and daughter’s separation. While this is partly true, it fails to encapsulate what’s already inside the lead protagonist before she had her daughter, that sadness already growing within her that makes us not want to look away. There is a reason why the title is simply called “Julieta” and Almodóvar’s hands create a stunning portrait of a woman on the edge.