Julieta (2016) – A Low-Key Drama on the Guilt of a Mother

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Julieta, Movie Poster, Pedro Almodovar
Julieta (2016) By Pedro Almodovar
Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodovar, contemporary world cinema’s best melodramatist, is famous for weaving intricate, incisive tales of mothers and daughters. The director’s mournful narrative quality and his use of dazzling color palette have earned the adjective ‘Almodovarian’. After an examination of male control fantasy in “The Skin I Live In” and a campy ensemble film “I’m So Excited”, Almodovar with his fragile mother story “Julieta” (2016), returns to the mellow territory of “Talk to Her”, “All about My Mother”, and “Volver”. “Julieta” is based on the three short stories of Nobel Prize winning Canadian author Alice Munro (collection known as ‘Runaway’) and was earlier alleged to be the director’s first English language film with central character played by Meryl Streep. But, Almodovar opted to set the story closer to home – Madrid – and as usual concentrates on his pet themes of guilt, regret, transition and love. Almodovar in his interview to ‘BBC’ has stated that his aesthetics in this film was controlled, apart from few exceptions. Yes, the colors are little muted when compared to his other works, although the very first shot commences with film-maker’s austere, trademark color – Red. It is a scarlet fabric, bobbing gently in a way that reminds us of petals being caressed by wind. Gradually, the red fabric is a silk dress worn by the titular character (played by very restrained Emma Suarez) seated in front of a table, wondering what to do with the bright blue envelope she is holding in her hands.

Our Rating: 7.5
IMDb Ratings: 7.2
Genre: Drama | Romance
CastAdriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez
Country: Spain
Language: Spanish
Runtime: 99 min
Color: Color
The blue and red color motifs are diffused through most of the frames (yellow shades occupy the frames in the later parts) and in this first instant, the blue envelope is thrown into the trash. Julieta, in her early 50s, looks brokenhearted and greets her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) with a wry smile. They are soon moving to Portugal and considering the turbulent past, Julieta hopes this is her last week in Madrid. But like a ‘former addict slipping up once’, a chance encounter with a friend (Michael Jenner) of her daughter Antia changes Julieta’s course. She is once again confounded by feelings of guilt. The daughter’s friend Bea says that she met Antia and her two children recently. It’s been a long time since Julieta met or talked with Antia and the fact that her daughter has a family opens up a fresh wound within heart. Julieta breaks up with Lorenzo, buys a old apartment (where she once stayed with Antia – an unusually dull space for an Almodovar movie, reflecting the character’s melancholy) and starts writing a long letter to her daughter, chronicling from the day she met Xoan (Daniel Groa) on a journey, who would become Antia’s father.  
One of the beautiful moment in the film shared between Julieta and her ailing mother
One of the beautiful moment in the film shared between Julieta and her ailing mother
The narrative cuts back in time to the late 1980s and Julieta (played by effervescent beauty Adriana Ugarte), working as substitute teacher teaching Greek, meets a handsome fisherman Xaon. Before meeting him in the cafeteria section of the train, young Julieta avoids a conversation with old man, who later goes onto commit dramatic suicide. It’s the first of many other guilt Julieta is about to face in her life. Could she have saved the old man by conversing with him? No, it’s not her fault, assures Xaon, who later enjoys a physical closeness with Julieta, giving rise to Antia. It’s not the first foreboding moment we see in Almodovar’s films, followed by passionate sex. The director conjures a beautiful shot as we see the vivid reflection of Julieta riding Xaon in the rapidly traveling train. Julieta becomes Xaon’s second wife (first wife died after suffering for years in coma) and constantly observed by disapproving house-keeper Marian (Rossy de Palma). With Antia’s birth, Julieta anticipates nothing but happiness in life, but a simple journey to see parents raises doubts and warnings. When Antia is nine years old, a tragedy (we expect) strikes their family and the mother & daughter is set on a downward spiral of guilt.

Almodovar makes ample references to Hitchcock (young Julieta’s blonde hair to the mean house-keeper, fateful meeting in a train), Patricia Highsmith, and Greek tragedy. The somber, controlled style of the director plus his trademark ideas of connecting emotions with costume and props gives great pleasure for the admirers of his oeuvre. But, I felt that there’s not enough robust material in the narrative (or suspense) to make “Julieta” a masterful, melodramatic domestic feature. The film-maker instills immense empathy and maturity in the way he deals with women characters (the artist Ava played by Inma Cuesta is one of fabulous, distinctive Almodovar characters), although there’s not enough breathing space for the tragedy or themes to fully evolve. “Julieta” isn’t devoid of profound moments and the expressions of abandonment in Emma Suarez’s wrinkled face bring the kind of rawness we look for in the director’s movie. As Julieta grows old she replaces the atmosphere around her and relationships with something new. However, the estrangement and loss of child is an absent space she couldn’t fill. This is elegantly observed through Julieta’s sparsely-furnished apartment and in the wandering around old neighborhood. Suarez’s character isn’t also the usual powerful mother we saw in the director’s previous features. She is very fragile and turns guilt into some sort of illness to only infect her daughter Antia. There are other Almodovorian flourishes like in the hair-drying sequence we see a transition happening in Julieta’s life.
Inma Cuesta plays the trademark Almodovarian woman character Ava, a sculptor artist and Adriana Ugarte as young Julieta
Inma Cuesta plays the trademark Almodovarian woman character and Adriana Ugarte as young Julieta

Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta” (96 minutes) is a fine melodrama about mother/daughter relationship, elevated by the film-maker’s meticulous approach to visual design. Although supremely performed and crafted, the endeavor is smaller & leaner in scope.  

About Author - 

Arun Kumar is an ardent cinephile, who finds solace by exploring and learning from the unique works of the cinematic art. He believes in the shared-dream experience of cinema and tries to share those thoughts in the best possible way. He blogs at Passion for Movies and 'Creofire'.

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