Legendary director Pedro Almodóvar is back to form in the beautiful and deeply moving “Julieta” which opened Friday at the Landmark Theatre Bethesda Row Cinema.
After the perfectly eerie “The Skin I Live In” (2011) and the delightfully campy “I’m So Excited” (2013), the openly gay Spanish auteur returns to the gritty world of “Volver” (2006) in an outstanding film that explores powerful themes of love, abandonment, guilt, grief and finally forgiveness.
Based on three short stories by the great Canadian author Alice Munro, “Julieta” tells the story of the title character from 1985 through 2016. We meet her (the “later” Julieta is played by the wonderful Emma Suárez) in present-day Madrid. She’s dressed in a sophisticated red dress, packing up her art works and books as she prepares to move to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti from “Talk to Her”).
Her plans suddenly change when she runs into Beatriz, a childhood friend of her estranged daughter, Antía. With little explanation, she breaks up with Lorenzo and moves back to her old apartment building. She feverishly starts writing a letter to her daughter, breaking the silence about secrets that have haunted the family for years.
In flashback, we meet the “earlier” Julieta (the excellent Adriana Ugarte) on the night train to Madrid. Dressed in a bright blue sweater with spiky hair, she’s on her way to a substitute teaching job. On that fateful night, she meets two men who will haunt her life. The first is a lonely man who commits suicide. The second is the hunky fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao), who becomes her husband and the father of her daughter Antía, who is conceived during that momentous train ride.
From there, the story moves seamlessly back and forth through Julieta’s life, moving from Juan’s home on the shores of Galacia to Julieta’s various apartments in Madrid. Characters flow in and out of the movie: Julieta’s dying mother; her estranged father who later has a son by the woman who cared for his wife; the talented artist Ava (the appealing Inma Cuesta) who has tangled relationships with Xoan, Julieta and Lorenzo; and, the amusing superintendent (a delightful Ramón Aguirre) who welcomes Julieta to his building not once, but twice.
Most importantly, Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma appears as Xoan’s moralistic housekeeper Marian. Her powerful performance is a subtle tribute to Judith Anderson’s portrayal of the villainous Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Rebecca.” At key moments in the plot, Marian betrays both Xoan and Julieta, leaving death and suffering in her poisonous wake. As always, de Palma expertly captures Almodóvar’s delicate emotional shadings, this time a fascinating blend of comedy, menace, love, obsession and unshakable righteousness.
Hitchcock also inspires Almodóvar’s narrative technique in “Julieta.” Details are slowly revealed as the movie moves forward and the characters move back and forth in time. The audience must assemble the clues and reconsider their assumptions about the characters. This is a movie that is even richer upon second viewing, and deserves to be discussed in detail after the credits roll.
The movie also continues Almodóvar’s fascination with the rich color palettes of American director Douglas Sirk (“Imitation of Life” and “All That Heaven Allows”). Deep blues saturate Juan’s fishing village and vibrant reds fill Lorenzo’s Madrid, but all color is drained from Julieta’s life as she is consumed with grief and loss.
In addition to his stellar cast, Almodóvar is well supported by his excellent production team. Art director Anxton Gómez and costume designer Sonia Grande create distinctive looks for each period of Julieta’s life; these looks are beautifully captured by Director of Photography Jean-Claude Larrieu. The lively and innovative score by Alberto Iglesias nicely underlines Almodóvar’s move from melodrama to drama.
It’s a joy to watch a master of the peak of their form, and Almodóvar’s work in “Julieta” is masterful and bold. In his 20th full-length feature as director, it’s delightful to see him return to familiar themes and visual styles and to work with familiar actors. But, it’s also fascinating to watch him stretch himself artistically by exploring new ways to tell a story. There are nods to Sirk and Hitchcock, but the result is pure Almodóvar. “Julieta” is a visual delight filled with vibrant characters and moving explorations of grief, guilt, love and creativity.