In an age where feminism is largely being undermined by the societal and governmental patriarchy, it makes complete sense for the melodramatic “women’s films” that were popular in the first half of the 20th century to return to popularity – if only in arthouse circles.
We’ve had lovelorn romantic throwbacks (Brooklyn), understated period pieces that take advantage of the freedoms of the Post-Hays Code era (Carol) and unashamedly melodramatic inspirational feminist tales (Joy). What we haven’t had to join this new wave of modern melodramas is a new film from the modern revisionist master of the genre: Pedro Almodóvar.
A Return to the “Cinema of Women”
The Spanish filmmaker may have been beloved in arthouse circles since the 80’s, due to how he effortlessly mixed intense emotional conflicts with transgressive sexual themes, but it wasn’t until 1999’s All About My Mother that he became a truly internationally beloved auteur.
Almodóvar has never been one for restraint; his films manage to deliver heart wrenching gut punches, whilst always paying tribute to Hitchcockian suspense and De Palma-style tastelessness. Julieta is pitched as a return to form, following his notable 2013 misfire I’m So Excited, a return to his more comedic roots where all the jokes appeared to be lost in translation.
After attempting to deliver all the humour and no heart with his prior film, Julieta tips the balance back in favour of the earnest drama and has been noticeably billed by the director as his welcome return to the “cinema of women”. In earlier films including Talk to Her, he managed to effortlessly balance heartfelt storylines with trashy and often problematic content that his lightness of touch ensured could never be rendered offensive.
Julieta may be a return to drama, yet it is a departure from the filmmaker world cinema audiences have come to love across three decades. By design, it is a gentle, subtle film from a writer/director who usually prefers hitting you with an emotional sledgehammer.
Julieta, played by Emma Suarez in middle age, lives a fairly ordinary life in Madrid. Her plans to move abroad to Portugal with her partner get derailed after she sees one of her daughter’s friends in the street, being told the friend just met up with her daughter Antía in Switzerland where she is happily raising three children.
Julieta has been out of touch with her daughter since she was 18, so now breaks up with her partner, moves back into her old Madrid flat and begins writing to her in the hope of getting back in touch after decades apart. As she writes the letter, we flash back to her early twenties onwards (where she is played by Adriana Ugarte) and her complicated relationship with Xoan (Daniel Grao), her ex-husband and father of her daughter.
This is a simple premise that you could easily assume would be ripe for melodramatic treatment. Almodóvar’s appropriation of Hitchcock tropes ensures that from the outside, this could equally prioritise twisty suspense with a genuinely heartfelt narrative. In Julieta, this isn’t the case. Almodóvar isn’t an insincere filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination, but nothing he has directed before comes close to the sincerity with which he treats this narrative.
Even though it boasts a luscious score from regular collaborator Alberto Iglesias, that harkens back to the golden age of melodramas, he takes every opportunity to refrain from descending into cheap emotional manipulation that the genre casually provoked in its heyday.
Stylistically and thematically, this remains an Almodóvar film through and through. His impact on cinema ensures that luscious primary colours and films about strong women in Spanish society will always be associated with his brand of filmmaking. However, the newly applied restraint suggests a newfound emotional maturity; a new evolution in his filmmaking style that helps him communicate heartfelt tales to an audience in a manner believable to a modern age where melodramas are discussed in derisory terms.
The only problem is, as affecting as the film may be, it doesn’t linger in the mind long after viewing in the way his prior masterpieces did so effectively. The film is so subtle, the emotional impact it had on me still proved to be fleeting.
As always, Almodóvar manages to coax incredible performances from his entire ensemble – an even trickier task this time around, considering the lack of attention grabbing sequences. In the dual lead role, Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte may not share believable physical resemblances, but they are both so perfectly attuned to the titular character, to such an extent I barely noticed.
Their performances manage to convey two different sides to the same person: one lovelorn, yet full of sorrow, with the other lonely and full of quiet angst that is all but fading as she continues to mature. Only in a later sequence, where Julieta tears up the bedroom of her departed daughter, did the movie try to display the courage of its melodramatic convictions; after all the restraint leading up to that sequence, it felt all the more jarring as a result.
The film is adapted from three separate short stories that Almodóvar manages to transform into a cohesive whole, due to taking frequent liberties with the source material. Even as that is the case, Julieta still feels like a loving adaptation of somebody else’s work as he avoids all the stereotypical preconceptions an audience has of an “Almodóvar film” at every possible opportunity. It is a commendable effort, yet only a partial return to form after the misfire that preceded this in his filmography.
From All About My Mother onwards, he has proved a master of heartfelt story lines depicting the trials and tribulations of women and the LGBT community. Instead of further developing his empathetic nature towards his characters, he has come close to threatening what made him so special as a filmmaker in the first place.
Julieta is heartfelt throughout, but the dry manner in which the story unfolds renders it forgettable, especially considering the nature of the movies he has made before, which managed to perfectly balance transgression with raw emotion.
Have you seen Julieta? Let us know what you think in the comments!
Julieta is released in US cinemas on December 21 and on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK on December 26. All international release dates are here.
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