Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film about the dynamical changes and tumultuous events in one woman’s life opens with a frame that reintroduces us to the director’s signature style. A close-up shot of a draping piece of deep red silk, moving slowly but freely, as though breathing against the lens of the camera, offers a sensual backdrop for the theatrical introduction of the film’s title, which fades softly onto the screen: Julieta. From the outset, Almodóvar confidently makes his mark.
In case some audience members are unaware of what to expect from Almodóvar’s unique storytelling, the director ensures that any visual memory from the film is stained with the vibrance, boldness and passion of his recurring red tones. The film is inspired by several interwoven short stories from Canadian feminist writer Alice Munro’s Runaway, and these radiate a warmth that you can almost feel. Julieta has been critically acclaimed: after I’m So Excited! (2013) received a mixed reception, it would seem that audiences and critics alike are singing its praises with orchestral delight. This is understandable: Almodóvar has, for quite some time, enjoyed almost unconditional accolades and the canonisation that comes with the auteur brand. Bar the brief use of a shoddy-looking CGI deer to cynically visualise a somewhat lost metaphor during one part of the film, Julieta’s overall composition is both meticulous and boldly melodramatic, with each shot soaked in the Spanish director’s overarching style.
Yet it is worth questioning the ways in which auteurism – a predominantly male concept – serves to distract from other, socio-political modes of representation that could, or should, be present. Julieta is a reimagining of an original feminist narrative about a Canadian woman who becomes entangled within the nebula of passing time, while suffering from the absence of her estranged daughter. But it is questionable whether Julieta succeeds in exploring the consciousness of a complex, female character, or whether that complexity is rather appropriated by the lens of a popular, male auteur, to serve the preconditioned expectations of his audience.
The film follows its titular character through various stages of her life, which are segmented into a patchwork, non-linear narrative: from an older Julieta’s (Emma Suárez) refusal to move to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), so that she can revisit her past in Madrid, to a 1980s cliché-composed flashback that recounts a chance sexual encounter between the brooding, lumberjack-esque Xoan (Daniel Grao) and a younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) during an overnight train ride. The latter is a short chapter, executed as an abstract cocktail of melodrama, where an older man commits suicide on the train tracks, and a post-production imposed stag prances in slow-motion “looking for a female he can smell on the air” in a Mills and Boon-type euphemism that leads to the protagonist being impregnated by her mysterious love interest, while his wife lies in a coma.
The melodramatic tone of Julieta is engrossing and admittedly enjoyable but the film seems to come apart in its exploration of the tumultuous relationship between a grieving mother and her lost daughter, Antía. While this is the film’s supposed point of focus, the lingering presence of Xoan is overly dominant. This becomes clear in a problematic sequence that dovetails women’s ageing with grief and despair, as if such a natural process were grotesque. Within this context the replacement of the actor Adriana Ugarte with the face of Emma Suarez troublingly signifies the transformation of Julieta into an abject aged woman, an ‘old hag’ who has never quite got over the death of her adulterous male partner. The promotional poster for the film cements this reading. The film makes some use of Munro’s original references to the Greek Odyssey, with frequent allusions to the sublime nature of the ocean, as well as the relentless and excruciating passage of time. What is lost, however, is Munro’s suggestion that Julieta could be the legendary king Odysseus character, who must stoically endure a perilous journey of a long and silent separation from her beloved daughter in order to return to her – many years later – in a final act of reconciliation.
The notion of solidarity between women is dispensed with in all too brief a scene after Julieta has travelled with Antía to her family home, in order to visit her sick mother. The three generations of women are captured in frame together as they share the eldest’s bedroom while they sleep. It is a sequence that shows each woman falling into the body of the other, cradling one another without reference to any men in their lives.
It is a shame then that, while the canvas upon which Almodóvar attempts to paint this women-centric narrative reveals all of his renowned brush strokes and palletted colours, the sameness of his compostition only serves to restrict and diminish the growth, understanding and centricity of Julieta’s women. The film does less to portray the dynamical relationship between a mother and a daughter and instead insists on demonstrating the effects of a decades-old relationship between one man and his camera.
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