Pedro Almodóvar’s last two films were affronts to his reputation as a director. The Skin I Live In (2011) was a grotesque horror show starring Antonio Banderas as a mad plastic surgeon. I’m So Excited was a wacky romp in an airplane that badly needed fuel. His latest, Julieta, currently in competition at Cannes, was a box office disappointment in Spain, where it opened last month – possibly due to the director being named in the Panama Papers – but it’s better than a lot of what he’s done lately, as well as the closest thing to a mainstream movie that one can imagine from the Spanish eccentric. There are no drag queens, paedophile priests, gruesome murders or operatic nervous breakdowns in Julieta (pronounced 'hoo-lee-ta'), inspired by stories from Alice Munro’s acclaimed collection Runaway. But there’s no mistaking the film as the work of anyone else.
The middle-aged Julieta Joven (Adriana Ugarte) is packing to leave present-day Madrid for Portugal when a chance encounter brings news of the daughter she last saw 12 years ago. Julieta’s plans for a new life abroad evaporate; she remains in Spain, consumed by the long-repressed past. The middle of the film, a long flashback to the 80s and 90s (fashions and hairdos impeccably done), is narrated as a book-length letter Julieta writes (but never sends) to her daughter. Both Almodóvar and Munro are masters of the flashback, but this one is totally tame (unlike the jigsaw-puzzle mind-fuck of 2004’s Bad Education). The story then returns to the present day, with the distraught mother facing a series of revelations about her daughter, and Almodóvar, who usually ties everything up in a pretty bow, leaves us with an understated cliffhanger.
As always in an Almodóvar film, style is substance, which is far from a bad thing. Walking out of the film, the colors of the real world seem a bit dull (even here on the Côte d’Azur). At every turn, Almodóvar slaps you in the face with deep reds and blues. The wallpaper, furniture and artworks (a sculptress named Ava is one of Julieta’s amorous rivals) are all overwhelmingly stylish. I found myself taking notes for redesigning my kitchen.
A favourite scene? The night-time train ride, complete with a stag galloping through the snow, where Julieta (with a truly amazing 80s coif) meets her future husband in a retro-slick dining car decked out with aquamarine tables. Almodóvar says he structured the film around this sequence, where Julieta comes face-to-face for the first time with love and death. He’s entitled, of course, to his opinion but I relished it for the Hitchcockian atmosphere and simmering sexual tension rather than the symbolism.
If the movie falls short of its target, it’s largely because all the gloss ends up cramping the story. Almodóvar has made some powerful melodramas before, but here, working with a new crop of actors and unusually wishy-washy material, he doesn’t quite pull it off. Rossy de Palma, one of the director’s few regulars in Julieta, has a delicious cameo as a sinister housekeeper who knows too much. All in all, the film could have used more of the classic Almodóvar weirdness.
A.J. Goldmann writes about European arts and culture for the Wall Street Journal, Opera News and the Forward