The bright, striking colour palette is what first drags us into the beautiful world of Julieta (2016), the lush red of a fabric filling the screen in a curious, sumptuous introduction. It is a stunning image that could almost be that of a theatre curtain, until the camera pulls back to reveal it to be the folds of a dress worn by our titular character. And yet with the tension in the rising music palpable in these opening moments, it really does seem that Pedro Almodóvar is gently lifting that ‘curtain’ on his latest story, welcoming us into this world while also giving a sense of what’s to come: melodrama, tragedy, and a whole lot of mystery.
If that vivid colour in the opening shot doesn’t already give you a hint that this is the Spanish auteur’s latest, then what’s to follow should. The intriguing characters, gripping narrative, dramatic score: it’s all so ‘Almodóvarian’ that you can spot it a mile off. However even with his usual traits, his other recent films have sadly been misfires in one way or the other, with I’m So Excited! (2013) wacky but not truly engrossing, The Skin I Live In (2011) a little too twisted for its own good, and the story for Broken Embraces (2009) falling flat in parts. Thankfully Julieta is without a doubt a return to form for the writer-director, mostly because of a brilliant central narrative which adds a pleasing dose of intrigue, a story that also moulds both past and present together in a fascinating way.
Adapted from three different short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta is all about guilt, betrayal and looking back on past regrets, as well as wondering if things might have turned out differently had another path been taken. This is a question Julieta asks herself after a chance meeting with one of her daughter’s friends, a daughter we soon discover disappeared from Julieta’s life years ago. We watch as the older Julieta once again tries to work out what went wrong between them, secrets about both their lives slowly revealed to us, and to Julieta herself. Almodóvar effortlessly weaves the past and present timelines together throughout, his gripping story following the lives of both the younger and older versions of the titular character, keeping us always guessing as to the reasons behind the split between mother and daughter until the very final moments.
The stunning performances from both leads make this tale all the more tragic, a sense of hopeless inevitability felt in the contrast between the broken, remorseful Julieta of the present (Emma Suárez) and her past, happier self (Adriana Ugarte). Having different people play the same character obviously adds to this contrast, something Almodóvar plays with in an inventive transition scene between the two when their timelines inevitably do meet. Yet Suárez and Ugarte never seem like anything other than the same person, Ugarte particularly impressing as she slowly becomes the exhausted, repentant Julieta we see in the present. How she gets there is all part of the mystery.
The melodrama of Almodóvar’s tale is matched by his aforementioned style, bold colours used throughout every frame to create an opulent and absorbing backdrop. This production design is something that particularly stands out on the high definition offered by the Blu-ray disc, a quality that also boosts that stunning score by Alberto Iglesias. Sadly the extras on the disc offer little more than the film’s trailer and a ‘Behind The Scenes’ shot during the filming of several scenes. While this does allow us to see Almodóvar at work, it seems like a lost opportunity when a discussion of his creative process would have been much more interesting, and almost a necessity when it is obvious the amount of care and work he has put into a masterpiece such as this.
While the keyword for Julieta is certainly ‘melodramatic’, Almodóvar is careful to ensure that it is never too over-the-top, with his carefully crafted narrative containing a hefty slice of realism that makes this all the more engrossing to watch. Each of his usual traits work together to create a world you want to melt into, one so immersive that when the curtain is eventually drawn on Julieta’s tale, it is so without warning that you won’t want it to end.