By Greggory Moore | Feb. 25, 2017
I don’t know how Pedro Almodóvar does it. His direction is never dazzling. His scripts are not particularly intellectual or complex. You might mistake him for mere artisan were it not for the pesky fact that even his lesser films tend to linger in your subconscious long after you think you’re done with them.
That’s exactly what happened to me in the 24 hours after I saw Julieta, probably the slowest and stateliest film of his not exactly action-packed oeuvre. I walked out of the theater unmoved, but by the next day the experience of having seen the film had risen above the experience of seeing it.
We meet middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) as she packs up the last of her Madrid life for a move to Lisbon with her lover Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). She wants to leave and not look back. But later that day she has a chance encounter with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her daughter Antía, and the next day a badly shaken Julieta tells Lorenzo the move is off, refusing even to hint at why. She takes a new apartment in Madrid and begins a long letter (a journal, actually) to Antía, which is presented to the audience as a narrated flashback recounting everything from the night Julieta met Antía’s father to Antía’s childhood to how Julieta coped with life once Antía inexplicably cut off all contact.
Were Julieta nothing but its plot, it would be no more than serviceable; but Almodóvar has cleverly constructed a piece of art where the subtext is the real story. When Julieta first puts pen to paper, it seems a ham-handed means to catch us up on her life. But exposition piles on exposition, and after all is said and done we have a compelling meditation on the consequences of telling—or not telling—your story.
A key to decoding this message comes in an early scene of young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) on a train. She has a compartment to herself, until an older man sits across from her and gently alludes to his desire for company. Uninterested, she exits the cabin, a move that not only puts her life on a particular track—in the dining car she meets the man who will be Antía’s father—but comes to haunt her. Almodóvar implants the idea with a single shot of the inside of the man’s valise: it is completely empty. By the time Almodóvar comes back to this mystery man with a single remembered image, we understand just how much the unsaid has impacted Julieta’s—and probably everyone’s—life.
For all that, in the final scene, just before the camera sweeps across a glorious ocean vista (the only big shot in the film), Julieta’s final lines invite us to consider the matter more deeply. To be sure, what we don’t share with each other can lead to unnecessary disconnects, sometimes with tragic consequences. But there may also be scenarios in which the story we can tell is burdensome trivia in the face of the opportunity to live a new one.
There is not much in Julieta that will grab you. It isn’t an overriding masterpiece like Volver. It lacks the dramatic tension of The Skin I Live In and Live Flesh. It is even devoid of the quirky humor and idiosyncratic character types that are Almodóvar signatures. As such, even the man’s biggest fans might not immediately take to this one. But give it a chance. Julieta may be the least Almodóvarish Almodóvar film, but it may also be one of his most meaningful.