THERE’S SOMETHING DEEPLY unsatisfying about Pedro Almódovar’s latest offering, Julieta, a melancholy, generation-jumping meditation on grief, loss and the complexing nature of personal history, which stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as older and younger versions of the titular protagonist.
At the story’s beginning, our heroine, the eponymous Julieta, is about to leave Madrid for Portugal, where her boyfriend Lorenzo has been offered a job. By chance, Julieta runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her estranged daughter Antía, who, she learns, is living in Switzerland and has three children. Julieta abandons her plans to go to Portugal with Lorenzo and instead leases an apartment in the Madrid building where she raised Antía (played first by Priscilla Delgado and later by Blanca Parés), knowing it is the only place that Antía could plausibly find her. Meanwhile, she begins to write an account of her life as an explanation for the events which led to their separation.
Like an actor’s accent that slips one too many times––so once, in other words––a distinct dissimilarity in the appearance of two people who are ostensibly the same person is really quite off-putting. As Julieta ages, her full mouth magically shrinks, her previously broad, defined jaw softens and her nose, which is noticeably wide at the top, becomes remarkably thin, and none of the other character think that this small miracle merits a passing remark, nor, come to that, does Julieta’s daughter find it strange that this change happens in an instant as she towels her mother’s wet hair. It never occurs to you that Julieta has, as the creator no doubt intended, been ravaged by time and by grief––only that she’s suddenly played by someone other than Ms. Ugarte, and for the life of you you can’t work out why.
The film’s other main fault is the speed at which it trundles along. At times Julieta limps along like some sort of wounded animal, and you will start to be convinced you’re decaying as you watch.
The film’s other main fault is the speed at which it trundles along. You can use, if you like, the hackneyed excuse that always seems to be wheeled out in defence of poor pacing––that the speed reflects a theme of the film, in this case the perceived endlessness of grief––but, really, at times Julieta limps along like some sort of wounded animal, and you will start to be convinced you’re decaying as you watch. Julieta is, however, very funny in places, but it certainly isn’t funny enough to see it on that basis alone. Almodóvar, incidentally, hadn’t intended it to be funny at all, which means, to put it another way, that one of the best things about Julieta was an accident. There are some undeniably gorgeous wide shots of the Galician coastline and the Pyrenees, but these shots are too few and too brief to count as an appealing feature of the film. And then there’s the ending, which offers only a hint of the catharsis that you as a viewer desperately want, and that the film desperately needs to redeem an otherwise tedious third act. The overall impression of the film that you get when the credits begin to roll is that you have just sat through ninety minutes of a story that wasn’t all that interesting to begin with and at any rate never went anywhere, and that, reader, is especially frustrating because already it seemed to have been dragged out to within an inch of its life and really, things didn’t have to be that way.
All that said, Julieta isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t a good one. Praise, for instance, is certainly in order for both the women who play Juliet (even if only one of them was required) and Rossy de Palma particularly, who is criminally underused, shines during her brief appearances as the comically curmudgeonly keeper of Xoan’s seafront home. Julieta’s faults, then, have less to do with the cast and the direction than the story, which is unforgivably weak, and if not for the former two things this film would have been much, much worse.