Overview: A film based on three short stories from Alice Munro’s book Runaway. Warner Bros.; 2016; 96 Minutes.
Minor Key: Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta represents a muted return to form. It holds all of the trademarks of the directors more powerful films: the twists, the feminine focus, and the loud theatrics reminiscent of theater or Spanish soap melodrama. But all these elements feel like less. The twist is more embedded, the premise more grounded. Returning plot devices from earlier films are used and the vivid aesthetic remains, each utilized in much lesser effect. It is difficult to say whether Almodovar has become average in restraint or familiarity.
The story pursues a noir atmosphere, though lacks the focus or execution to pull it off to any effective degree. Structured in in three parts, Julieta follows an estranged mother-daughter relationship through the frame device of a reconciliation letter from the former to the latter explaining what had happened with the child’s father. Almodovar is interested in grief and its debilitating side effects, how it separates and begets more grief, investigating grief-influenced blame without casting it.
The Reserve of Genius: In these ambitions, Julieta may be a bit too slight to fully satisfy Almodovar fans and beginners alike. Those already familiar with his work will be underwhelmed by his decision for a more nuanced approach (the subtle ending left many in the audience feeling unsatisfied, for example), and those new to his work might consider it too middling.
Still, the film manages to occasionally connect on a dramatic level. Characters are mostly sympathetic, even if their decisions, fueled by the aforementioned grief, seem occasionally absurd. The beauty with which Almodovar and his team designs sets is by now a trademark, and yet still feels under-appreciated. In Julieta, the background of each sequence is a pastel painting observed by cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu. As the color in Julieta’s (Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte) hair grows light and weathered, so do the colors surrounding her, the energy and innocence of youth fading with age. His use of vibrant reds, yellows, oranges and the contrasting blues and greens makes each sequence visually impressive, but still less affecting than some of his earlier films. Almodovar isn’t flaunting here, but given the resume he’s built from more unreserved efforts in the past, it is hard to say if that’s good and bad.
Overall: Julieta has its moments, but lacks the spark of Almodovar’s masterpieces. It remains a light, easy viewing, but not a memorable one, ending as the barest copy of that dark telenovela that Almodovar has perfected with the likes of Talk To Her and The Skin I Live In.