Almodovar’s “Volver” was shown as the very first film (before the Society was even formed), so we have chosen his latest film as part of the 10th anniversary. After a casual encounter, a brokenhearted woman decides to confront her life and the most important events about her stranded daughter
Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, his most moving and entrancing work since 2006’s Volver, is a sumptuous and heartbreaking study of the viral nature of guilt, the mystery of memory and the often unendurable power of love. At times, the emotional intrigue plays more like a Hitchcock thriller than a romantic melodrama, with Alberto Iglesias’s superb Herrmannesque score (the director cites Toru Takemitsu, Mahler and Alban Berg as influential) heightening the noir elements, darkening the bold splashes of red, blue and white.
Three short stories from the Canadian author Alice Munro’s 2004 volume Runaway provide the source material, but the spirit of Patricia Highsmith looms large as strangers on a train fuel the circling narrative (one character even observes that he is becoming a Highsmith obsessive). I was also startled to find echoes of George Sluizer’s Dutch-French 1988 chiller Spoorloos in the depiction of a life defined by the disappearance of a loved one, although there is a tenderness here wholly lacking from Sluizer’s altogether more unforgiving work. Emma Suárez is fabulous as Julieta, a beautiful, erudite, middle-aged woman leaving Madrid for Portugal to start a new life with Lorenzo (Talk to Her’s Darío Grandinetti). But a chance meeting with a childhood friend of her estranged daughter, Antía, sideswipes Julieta’s future plans. Instead of moving forward, she returns to the apartment block where she and Antía once lived, to write the story of their tragic, quasi-mythical odyssey.
Transported back to the 80s, we meet the younger Julieta, now played with equal vigour by Adriana Ugarte, one of the film’s many talismanic doublings. For this spiky-haired classics teacher (Greek myth flows through these stories), a nocturnal train journey provides a fateful brief encounter with love and death, laying the tracks for all that is to come: her relationship with Galician fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao), the birth of their beloved daughter, Antía, and the predestined separation from both. Almodóvar initially planned to use Munro’s stories as the basis of an English-language feature, yet bringing the material to Spain puts the writer-director on fertile home ground. As with 1997’s Live Flesh and 2011’s The Skin I Live In, Julieta may have a literary source but the result is entirely Almodóvar’s own.
We open on a close-up of the undulating folds of a crimson dress, resembling both a heart and flower, signalling the thicker-than-water themes that will course through the narrative. As Julieta moves back and forth through time and space, Sonia Grande’s costumes and Antxón Gómez’s production design tell their own story – the stark lines of a room in which the past has been erased contrasting with the noisy clutter of a space filled with memories; the fragmented patterns of a gown matching the jagged edges of a torn photograph that Julieta sticks together to face her past; a blue garment framing a crimson cake that is ritually binned as another lonely birthday passes. After the exhaustingly camp sociopolitical satire of 2013’s I’m So Excited!, it’s a relief to find Almodóvar returning to the more introspective themes of such superior work as All About My Mother or The Flower of My Secret. Yet for all the director’s avowed “desires for containment” in a drama that he insists contains no “humour or any mixing of genres”, Julieta still manages to unite the disparate elements of Almodóvar’s unruly career.
As the current BFI Southbank retrospective reminds us, he’s come a long way from the punky bawdiness of Pepi, Luci, Bom. There is a Bergmanesque quality to Almodóvar’s focus on Suárez’s face in Julieta which speaks volumes about his journey from enfant terrible to elder statesman. As portrayed by Ugarte, however, the younger Julieta would not have seemed out of place in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! or High Heels, a reminder that the ghosts of Almodóvar’s back catalogue (highlighted here by the iconic presence of longtime muse Rossy de Palma) are as present as the past lives that haunt our heroine. Deftly conjoining the two central performances is a breathtakingly simple sequence that encapsulates Almodóvar’s genius. As a young Antía dries her devastated mother’s hair, Ugarte’s face disappears beneath a towel and re-emerges as that of Suárez, Julieta’s youthful visage transformed by grief. Whether through coma, depression or dementia, this is a drama littered with characters living an underworld existence, trapped by the great silence that is the true villain of the piece. Having been swept along by Almodóvar’s vision, I felt that silence deserved to be broken by tumultuous applause.
Mark Kermode, The Observer, 28th August 2016
Pedro Almodóvar’s 20th film, Julieta, has a magnificent score from his trusty Alberto Iglesias, which cites musical motifs of all sorts and fuses them into a lithe, jazz-inflected suite. There’s a respectful variation on Barber’s Adagio, when the main character, on the worst day of her life, has to identify a body. And in the moments when her daughter, Antía, is conceived on a night train, Iglesias brings in a breathy snatch of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, accompanying an exquisitely bluesy, twilit image of sex reflected in a compartment window.
Everything changes for Julieta (short-cropped blonde Adriana Ugarte, a terrific near-newcomer) on that train. She’s just met this fellow passenger, Xoan (Daniel Grao), a hunky, bearded fisherman whose wife has been in a coma for five years. Together, they’ve had to witness the suicide of an older man, for which Julieta blames herself: this lost soul reached out to her in their shared compartment, and she misread his intentions in panic, and left him on his own. This guilt at failing to save a stranger’s life hasn’t marked Julieta permanently, except in the way it prefigures the same, and much more devastating, reaction to a later bereavement. Julieta before and Julieta after this loss are two different people: the older one is played with very fine-tuned unhappiness by Emma Suárez, and the whole film is a baton being passed, one lap at a time, from one actress to the other.
The mid-way moment when Ugarte’s Julieta, already adrift in her grief, becomes Suárez’s Julieta, about to experience a brutal, plaster-ripping rift with the now-teenaged Antía, is managed with an elegant flourish – one borrowed smartly for the poster design. Julieta is being lavishly towelled off after washing her hair, et voilà – the switch has been made. This performance duet is one of Almodóvar’s simpler but more satisfying conceits of late, and the actressy emphasis of the film is a welcome return to his foremost obsessions, especially after the campy, male-dominated misfire of I’m So Excited! (2013).
It’s one of his least crazy films in narrative terms, but you couldn’t call it subdued, because the colours and textures he’s coaxed from a new director of photography, Jean-Claude Larrieu, are even more intoxicating than ever – it’s like an unexpectedly dry martini in a dazzling Z-stem glass. His source is three short stories – “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence” – by the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, taken from her unforgettable 2004 collection, Runaway. Those focused on the character of Juliet Henderson at three different moments in her life: “Soon”, for instance, involves a visit to her parents after childbirth, and becomes a relatively discrete section of the film. Julieta’s mother is a fading invalid, and her father is becoming involved with her nurse. The idea of betraying an incapacitated spouse, whether before or shortly after death, links this situation with Julieta’s and Xoan’s, but not in a way she’s overtly inclined to ponder; Julieta’s unforgiving estrangement from her father then makes Antía’s walkout, which happens so quickly and unfathomably it’s as if she’s been brainwashed, something of a taste of her mother’s own medicine.
Guilt here is a virus, spreading deep into a person’s marrow and becoming airborne, too – it’s an invisible plague even in this film’s sunniest, most sumptuous parts. Xoan’s waterside home on the Ferrol estuary is such eye candy to live in that even Wes Anderson might give it an admiring nod, but we know the sunshine can’t last. Suarez’s Julieta remembers the stormclouds rolling in, and though hardly to blame for the fatefulness of the weather, she’s been living under them ever since. If she could only see what we see – the resplendence of the film she’s starring in – it might not lay these demons wholly to rest, but it would definitely lure her towards the light.
Tim Robey, The Telegraph, 25th August 2016
|59 (68%)||21 (24%)||5 (6%)||1 (1%)||1 (1%)|
Total Number of Responses: 87
Film Score (0-5): 4.56
135 were present for the last screening of the season delivering a 64% response. The majority view was that Julieta was “Excellent - A grand finale for the season. Gripping from start to finish”: “superbly made; a profoundly tragic film about guilt, love, despair and responsibility with flowing and inventive camerawork. A masterpiece of feeling”. It was considered “a compelling story, beautifully told and filmed…”
Very many of you commented on the performances brought forth from his actors by Almodovar and this comment summed up many that I read; “Mesmerising – I was dismayed when the credits came up! – I thought it had only been going about 30mins. Emma Suárez – fabulous acting. Still not quite Volver, but closer than many of his intervening films!” echoed by “a staggeringly good film. Almodovar is a true master filmmaker. Complex characters and relationships beautifully handled. I want to see it again”. Others said that it was “wonderful, with great performances by both Julietas” in a “very moving film with a great script and wonderful actors. The most satisfying film of this season”.
However this observation “wonderful acting all around. The close up photography made every gesture expressive” may be offset by “pity the subtitles were in many cases difficult to read – and that all the girls had names beginning with “A”! But I really enjoyed the film even if I was not always able to follow the plot”. Other comments were as follows: “Thoroughly enjoyable – Brilliant”. “Great acting. Very moving and dramatic “A very good advert to support counselling for mental health. Very timely”. “Quite riveting right from the start with the living/breathing red heart of her dress”, “The best at the end of the season! Superb acting/story/music – with an ending that offered hope, after a life of uncertainty. How much pain can one person bear?” “Brilliant. You could hear a pin drop in the hall. And using gorgeous scenery as a backdrop – is that cheating?” “A great ending to what eventually turned out to be a good season”. “We all have a skeleton in the closet in some shape or form. Seeing her live with hers made me feel for her deeply. Thank God she had Lorenzo”. “A beautifully filmed illustration of the psychology of guilt. Not fun – but an excellent film”. “I am a great fan of Alice Munro and this lived up to expectations. Excellent ending”. “Got a bit tedious. What wasted lives”. “Oh dear. Such unrelieved misery. Well-acted, produced and presented but I could not identify with the characters. For me not one of Almodóvar’s better efforts”. “Secrets and lives without the script, dialogue, comedy, acting or talent”. “Best film so far. Good story. True to life”. “An absorbing totally passionate film. Excellent choice”.
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