Julieta (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Another tantalizing exercise in style by Almodóvar

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My eyes were thrilled and intrigued as watching Spanish film “Julieta”, another tantalizing exercise in style from Pedro Almodóvar. While it is relatively more straightforward and less flamboyant compared to his previous works, this is another stylish, confident work from a master filmmaker who really knows how to draw and hold our attention via thoughtful visual details and techniques. Although I observed its plot and characters from the distance, I savored its several fabulous visual moments as well as its two terrific main performances, so I came to conclude that they are good enough to compensate for its notable weak aspects, which still could not be completely overlooked even during my second viewing.

At first, the opening scene is filled with the bold red color of a gown worn by our heroine Julieta (Emma Suárez), and then we see her packing a number of things including a small sculpture at her slick modern apartment. She will soon move to Portugal along with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) because of his work, and she has no problem with that at all, as reflected by her casual conversation with him.

However, there comes an unexpected change through one accidental encounter. Julieta happens to come across her daughter’s old friend, and she tells Julieta that she recently encountered Julieta’s daughter outside Spain. 12 years ago, Julieta’s daughter suddenly and totally disconnected herself from her mother without any explanation, and Julieta has distanced herself from that painful fact of her life during recent several years, but it seems the past is not through with her yet.

And she is not through with the past either. She promptly cancels her plan with Lorenzo, who is understandably dismayed but respects her decision none the less while not asking too much. She moves back to an apartment where she and her daughter once lived before her daughter disappeared, just because her daughter may attempt to contact her via their old home address. As she thinks more about her daughter, she feels the urge to tell everything she did not tell her daughter when they were together, so she begins to write them down on a notebook for her daughter – and us, of course.

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Along with her narration, the movie goes back to when young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) had a couple of encounters to remember. On a night train to Madrid, Julieta happened to sit across a middle-aged guy, and she walked out from him when it looked like the guy was interested in her. While that seemingly inconsequential action of hers made her feel guilty when a tragedy occurred later, it also brought her to Xoan (Daniel Grao), a hunky fisherman who was on the same train.

Not long after their encounter which culminated to a very passionate moment between them, Julieta receives a letter from Xoan, and she soon goes to a seaside town where he lives. While Xoan recently lost his wife who were in coma for several years, Julieta has been pregnant since their encounter, so they eventually start to live together in his nice, cozy house near the sea, and then there comes their dear daughter Antía.

In the meantime, we are introduced to several other characters around them. Xoan’s middle-aged housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) gives a frigid impression to Julieta right from their first encounter, but she becomes softened a bit after Antía is born. Along with her husband and their young daughter, Julieta visits her parents living in a country village, and it does not take much time for her to notice that her father Samuel (Joaquín Notario) is quite close to a young woman who has taken care of many things in his house besides his ailing wife.

And there is Ava (Iman Cuesta), Xoan’s artist friend who made that sculpture shown in the opening scene. Julieta already knew from the beginning that Ava and Xoan were very close to each other before she came into his life, but what has remained unresolved among these three people for years ultimately leads to an incident which will affect not only Julieta and Ava but also Antía.

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Through some help from Antía’s aforementioned friend and that friend’s generous mother, Antía and Julieta subsequently move to Madrid, and Antía takes care of her mother as Julieta struggles with what is probably the lowest point in her life. As time goes by, Julieta gradually recovers, and things seem to be all right for her and her daughter as before, but then Antía makes that drastic choice after spending some time at a spiritual retreat located somewhere in the Pyrenees.

As the movie constantly sticks to Julieta’s viewpoint, Antía eventually becomes a distant, elusive character along the plot, and Almodóvar’s adapted screenplay, which is based on three short stories from Alice Munro’s “Runaway”, remains rather vague about her even in the end. I felt a little frustrated about this during my first viewing, but then I came to have some understanding during my second viewing. After all, the movie is not about what exactly happened to Antía but about how Julieta tries to deal with her past and the accompanying guilt inside her, and that is why the ending of the movie works to some degrees, though it also makes the whole movie look like a long warm-up process before more things to be revealed beyond the movie.

I still have reservation on whether the movie works as well as intended, but I recommend it anyway for what I enjoyed and appreciated during my repeated viewings. Almodóvar and his cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu frequently delight us with the striking utilization of primary colors in precise, elegant mise-en-scène, and Almodóvar’s longtime collaborator Alberto Iglesias’ score subtly generates tension and curiosity during many of key scenes in the film. In case of lead performers Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, they are so effortlessly connected with each other in their performance that you will marvel at how the movie makes a smooth transfer from Ugarte to Suárez at one point without any jarring impression.

While “Julieta”, which was chosen as Spain’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in this year, is not one of better works from Almodóvar in my inconsequential opinion, it still shows Almodóvar’s undeniable mastery of filmmaking, and some of its vibrant images will probably linger on my mind for a long time like those fresh, moistened red tomatoes in “Broken Embraces” (2009). He is simply having a fun with being Almodóvar here, and I guess we should not complain about that, considering how much he has impressed and dazzled us for many years as one of the best filmmakers of our time.

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