by Hope Madden
Pedro Almodovar brings his two most marked filmmaking styles – the one submerged in the world of women (Volver, for instance), the later of a more Hitchockian note (The Skin I Live In) – and pulls them together in his latest effort, Julieta.
The titular heroine, played at different ages by Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, has a shameful secret – or two. As the film opens, Julieta (Suárez) is packing to leave Madrid for Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But a chance encounter with a childhood friend of her daughter’s convinces Julieta to drop Lorenzo and stay in Madrid, moving instead to the old building where she’d lived for years with her daughter.
We then switch to the story of the younger Julieta (Ugarte), and Almodovar gets all Strangers on a Train with us – even to the point of eventually mentioning the novels of Patricia Highsmith, writer at the core of that Hitchcock classic.
Suárez capably maneuvers Julieta’s emotional landscape. She’s a woman pretending to be fine, keeping her true nature from those around her and attempting to hide it from herself. The performance is haunted, edged with remorse.
Ugarte stumbles, though. It doesn’t help that she and Suárez look so little alike, or that the flashback storyline is designed to be a thriller – an ill-fitting choice for the material.
Almodovar built the screenplay on three inter-connected shorts by Canadian writer Alice Munro, layering her words with an urgent score, suggesting dangerous thrills, and dialog-heavy close ups that feel more like daytime drama.
For all the clashing colors, discordant images and creepy housekeepers, Hitchcock and Munro just don’t fit together well.
Munro’s writing tends to lull you with quite unveilings. Julieta may be Almodovar’s attempt to spice that up by way of homage, score and framing, but it feels like a trick. His direction leads us to believe we’re watching some thriller wrought with dangerous secrets. We are not. This chicanery undercuts the power of Munro’s meditation on guilt while it all but guarantees the dissatisfaction of a misled audience.
The final result, though often gorgeous and compelling, is a bit of thematic chaos that doesn’t work.