Carlos Marcovich, a young, gifted Mexican director, makes a splashy feature debut with "Who the Hell Is Juliette?" a stylishly innovative, vastly entertaining docu about two stunningly beautiful women whose lives change as a result of crisscrossing paths. Theatrical prospects are excellent for a truly cross-cultural film brimful of intriguing insights about personal identity, family life and sexual politics, not to mention the rewarding relationship between an open-minded filmmaker and his eccentric, unpredictable subjects. Juliette (Yuliet) Ortega, a 16-year-old who lives in Havana, makes a mesmerizing protagonist. Her father left Cuba when she was a baby to start a new life in New Jersey, hoping that his wife would follow him. But a year later, Juliette's mother committed suicide; the young girl was raised by her grandmother and later drifted into prostitution. Despite poverty and harsh living conditions, she somehow developed a fun-loving nature along with her street-smart sense of survival. Born in Mexico, Fabiola Quiroz, 23, is a melancholy model with beautiful and sad green eyes. Also a product of a broken home, Fabiola meets Juliette when she comes to Cuba to shoot a musicvideo. They become instant friends and, later, in a great sequence, Fabiola arranges for Juliette to audition at a modeling agency in Mexico City.
A large gallery of secondary characters enlivens the proceedings. Prominent among them is Juliette’s religious brother, Michele. Unlike his sister, who thinks that “sex is sex” and can’t even remember the number of Italian tourists she has slept with, Michele thinks that sex is a “holy matter.” Juliette claims that she doesn’t miss and doesn’t want to see her father, but no one believes her. Indeed, one of the film’s most emotional moments is an on-camera reunion between Juliette and her father, which was initiated by the director.
Defying easy categorization, “Who the Hell Is Juliette?” benefits from the intellectual and cinematic flexibility in which it was created. Blurring the lines between conventional documentaries and fictional narratives, the film tracks two fascinating women at a crucial time in their lives. Shot without a screenplay from October 1995 to January 1997, and moving swiftly around four cities — Havana, Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles — the story evolved as it went along, with Marcovich serving as participant-observer.
Pic is laced with humor and irony, generated by the ever-changing lives of its heroines. Throughout, characters talk to the camera, and at one point even speculate about the proper ending of the movie. Indeed, some of the funniest observations are about filmmaking.
Fabiola says, “Directors waste a lot of time on the set, drinking coffee and choosing how many women to screw.”
Marcovich’s open-ended approach results in a nonlinear structure that makes good use of his experience in musicvideos, integrating eye-catching fashion shows, dynamic music sequences and scenes from Mexican mellers (starring Salma Hayek) that enrich the central yarn. The film sweeps along at a remarkable tempo without sacrificing the serious nature of its observations.
At one point, Juliette tells her director, “If you show this movie in public, the audience would leave the theater.” Judging by viewers’ enthusiastic responses in both Telluride and Toronto, however, on this occasion Juliette proves wrong.