Julieta: Melodramatic Passivity

** ½ (out of 4)

Towards the beginning of Albert Camus’ The Fall, the “judge-penitent” narrator asks the reader, “Have you noticed that it is only in death that our sentiments are reawakened? How it is that we love those friends who have just left us?” The titular protagonist (Emma Suárez in her old age, Adriana Ugarte in her youth) of Pedro Almodóvar’s newest film Julieta learns this the hard way. She rebuffs a man making advances to her on a train, only to regret it when he immediately commits suicide thereafter. And she scolds her partner Xoan (Daniel Grao) for his infidelity, only to feel deeply guilty when he subsequently goes out to sea and dies in a storm. Her relationships are all defined by their painful ephemerality; when she’s having sex, she does so with the energetic desperation of someone unconsciously aware that this might be her last real go.

It’s this rather dark portrait of Julieta’s emotional life that forms the core of this “adaptation” of three stories by Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. I put “adaptation” in quotes for a reason: Almodóvar’s Julieta is distinctly Almodóvar’s, not Munro’s quiet, insecure Juliet. When we first see her, Julieta sports a bright blue shirt and large red earrings – an eye-catching fashion sense that, together with her short white-dyed hair, reveals a person determined to forge her own path in life. She’s a classics teacher, and when she launches into a passionate monologue about Odysseus’ longing for adventure on the high sea, you see in her a living embodiment of his free-roaming spirit. We watch as she meets, quickly falls for, and eventually moves in with Xoan – but from the moment when we first watch them make love through a flickering reflection in a window, Almodóvar gives us the eerie sense that this relationship is going to crack. And years later, in the aforementioned storm sequence that puts to rest whatever loving conceptions Homer gave Julieta of the sea, it does.

What comes after this horrific event is where this movie’s liberal interpretation of the source material starts to weigh against it. A distraught Julieta latches onto her daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado/Blanca Parés) for comfort, but when Antía eventually grows up and leaves home, Julieta falls into a state of near-catatonic despair. “She keeps on hoping for a word from Penelope [Antía in the book], but not in any strenuous way,” writes Munro flatly of Juliet. For Julieta, such “hoping” turns out to involve ransacking Antía’s room and throwing away cakes on Antía’s birthday in masochistic rage. Almodóvar has always had a flair for melodrama, but here, he commits the ultimate blow-up by turning Munro’s subtle portrayal of a woman’s grief into an exaggerated, retrograde reincarnation of the “submissive woman who blames herself for everything” trope. When it eventually becomes clear that Julieta’s infantile attachment to Antía is less about Antía than it is about dealing with leftover guilt over Xoan and the man on the train, we also get the unsubtle message that women need men if they wish to retain even an inkling of their sanity.

In fairness, not all passive female characters are created equal. Back in the 19th century, Jane Austen and George Eliot both used characters like Fanny Price and Maggie Tulliver to launch blistering critiques of English society. And in the 1940s film world, directors like Alfred Hitchcock enveloped their distressed damsels in intricate layers of thriller and noir with movies like Rebecca and Suspicion. But here, when you set aside the creepy resemblance Xoan’s maid bears to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, Almodóvar doesn’t ever suggest he has any aim beyond trying to sell a vapidly weak-willed woman as a meaningful study in emotional mourning. The guy who once made us feel for a man who raped a comatose woman in Talk to Her has now shed provocation for cliché reinforcement, and the result is a bit of a letdown.

That all said, this movie certainly has a fair number of redeeming facets. The acting, particularly from Suárez and Ugarte, is well-done. There are many memorable shots that beautifully bring out Julieta’s loneliness, while the outrageous color schemes that gradually mellow as Julieta ages do a good job of setting the mood. And finally, for whatever it’s worth, Almodóvar does keep the movie from closing on a completely overblown note. There’s a scene near the end in which Julieta is shown furiously scribbling out a letter to Antía in Julieta’s empty apartment; as the camera zooms outward and her narrating voice bleakly proclaims that “Antía, there’s nothing left in my life,” you fear that this will be the movie’s abject way of rounding out its irritatingly demeaning story. But thankfully, it isn’t. Only later does it actually finish on a twist that moves away from Julieta’s debasing histrionics in favor of a broader, more touching tribute to the power and value of empathy. If Almodóvar had brought this kind of gentler poignancy to the rest of the movie, he would have made something far better than the disappointingly average film he has here.

***

Julieta (2016)

Country: Spain

Starring: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Darío Grandinetti, Daniel Grao, Rossy de Palma

Running Time: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some sexuality/nudity.”

Produced by: Ester García, Agustín Almodóvar

Written & Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar.

Based on “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” by Alice Munro.