In what was meant to be his English-language debut, Pedro Almodovar optioned a trio of short stories by Pulitzer-winning Canadian author Alice Munro — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” — about a Vancouver woman named Juliet Henderson, but it wasn’t until he rechristened the character “Julieta” and relocated her to Madrid that the narrative became his own. Like 2003’s “Talk to Her,” the film opens with a red curtain, except that here, instead of rising to reveal a theater stage, the scarlet fabric actually appears to be breathing. In fact, it is not a curtain at all, but a woman’s red blouse, behind which lies the heart whose secrets Almodovar respectfully proceeds to explore — a process that will span three decades and demand two leading ladies to accomplish.
While “Julieta” represents a welcome return to the female-centric storytelling that has earned Almodovar his greatest acclaim, it is far from this reformed renegade’s strongest or most entertaining work. Instead, following the high-altitude frivolity of “I’m So Excited,” the director’s relatively tame 20th feature finds him once again adopting a serious (read, “respectable”) attitude, eschewing comedy and high-camp melodrama in favor of plain old mellow drama. While that approach should appeal to festivals (including Cannes, where the Sony Pictures Classics release could screen following its April 8 opening in Spain) and older arthouse patrons, it’s considerably less fun than the garishly over-the-top Almodovar of old.
Not that “Julieta” could possibly be mistaken for the work of any other auteur. From that red-curtain opening to the final scene, in which a ladybug-bright car navigates a twisting mountain road, the use of color alone is a dead giveaway. When we meet her, Julieta (first embodied by Emma Suarez) is perhaps 50 years old, and though her faux blonde hairstyle suggests a failing attempt to cling to earlier times, a lifetime of tragedy shows in her eyes.
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She and her partner, Lorenzo (“Talk to Her’s” Dario Grandinetti), are packing up and preparing to leave for Portugal, but Julieta has unfinished business in Madrid, awakened by a chance encounter with a young woman named Bea (Michelle Jenner), who years before had been her daughter’s closest friend. This unexpected run-in is a shock for Julieta, who has spent the better part of the past 13 years coping with her daughter’s disappearance — only, we don’t know that yet.
Almodovar has constructed an extremely unconventional mystery, one in which there is no crime or culprit. Rather, his leading lady is herself a riddle, and the film itself is a sincere effort to understand her, retracing 32 years since the chance encounter that set her life on this particular course. Working in a superficially Hitchcockian vein, which might explain Julieta’s unnatural blonde ’do and the Bernard Herrmann-like echoes Alberto Iglesias’ otherwise soft-jazz score, Almodovar is aided in his detective work by Julieta herself, who is a reliable enough narrator, but clearly too close to the incidents themselves to recognize the true nature of her own tragedy.
In leaping back to the beginning of Julieta’s story, Almodovar also returns to the early days of his own career, casting a beautiful new muse, spiky-haired Adriana Ugarte, as the character’s younger self. Looking more like an ’80s glam rocker than the PhD student described by Munro (“she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, not bad-looking at all”), Julieta meets two strangers on a late-night winter train. The first is a pathetic older man who takes the vacant seat opposite her and awkwardly tries to strike up a conversation, forcing Julieta to flee the compartment. In the dining car, she finds a younger and considerably more handsome prospect, a fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao). Both men are lonely and seeking companionship, and Julieta’s choice has profound consequences — or so she believes — resulting in both pregnancy and death that very night.
Just shy of nine months later, Julieta tracks down Xoan, showing up the day after the funeral of his wife, who has spent the previous five years in a coma. “A man needs a woman, not a vegetable,” volunteers his busybody housekeeper (Rossy de Palma, a familiar face in Almodovar’s films during roughly the same years she occupies this narrative), dropping hints that Xoan has been seeing another mistress, a local artist named Ava (Inma Cuesta) who will soon become Julieta’s best friend, once Xoan agrees to make her a respectable woman.
Julieta is happy to be both married and a mother, and in a series of the film’s least interesting scenes, we witness her daughter Antia (alternately played by Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares) growing up before her eyes. In an awkward tangent, Julieta visits her parents’ pueblo, discovering that her father is having an affair right under the nose of his bedridden wife. Some years later, troubling fidelity issues emerge in her own marriage. Tragedy follows, forcing the family to move to Madrid, where, in a clever sleight-of-hand, Almodovar switches actresses: We see Antia and best friend Bea lift the depression-inert Ugarte from the tub and dry her with a big brown bath towel; when she emerges, it is Suarez whom we discover in her place, aged not by time but by misfortune.
Apart from their matching hairstyles, there’s not much to connect Ugarte and Suarez, but Almodovar’s gamble of using two actresses pays off. Considering that the film represents his wish to reveal the wounded soul of this life-worn woman, dividing the role actually amplifies the desired impact: Ugarte plays Julieta’s radiant, sexy and relatively naive younger self, while Suarez captures the complexity that develops with time.
And yet, through no fault of the performances — which favor expressive surfaces to inner psychology in that stilted tendency of daytime television and pre-Method Hollywood cinema — Julieta’s emotional turmoil never quite resonates. Instead, Almodovar’s curious nonlinear construction obscures too much of what Julieta is suffering, withholding the source of her pain (Antia’s disappearance) so long that the catharsis barely registers when she realizes that her assumptions — a mix of misplaced guilt and overall failure to identify with her own flesh and blood — were wrong all along.
If Julieta isn’t capable of understanding the situation herself, how can those around her possibly hope to help? Like Lorenzo, who takes to stalking his own wife in order to comprehend her behavior, audiences must patiently wait until Julieta explains the incidents that have left her life in limbo all these years. And though the film’s final minutes offer a hint of optimism, they arrive so soon after Almodovar finally explains her state of mind that it undermines the impact.
And so, we are left to ponder the film’s obsessive assortment of colorful compositions and charged artifacts — most notably, a dismembered male figure sculpted by Ava (actually the work of Miquel Navarro, from the director’s own collection). Even when working in earnest, Almodovar can’t hold back his own gaudiness, which threatens to overwhelm Julieta’s emotions at all times, just as the loud paintings, posters and wallpaper frequently eclipse the foreground action. To the extent that Almodovar’s films are a bold expression of his personal taste, Munro seems an odd source of worship. In many ways, her sensitivity is the antithesis of the director’s flamboyance, and one really ought to go back and read her three stories (especially “Silence,” which explains so much missing from the movie’s final act) to answer the mystery behind the mystery — fleshing out what Almodovar admired, but only partly managed to capture.