The ghost of Douglas Sirk laps at every corner of "Julieta," Pedro Almodovar's mother-daughter sudser in which love and martyrdom tragically clash. It's a bold move for the Spanish provocateur, veering from his usual envelope pushing for a more mainstream approach that borders on homage. And for the most part it works. But there is a hint of disappointment in a rare failure by the director to wow and surprise.
In many ways, it feels like he's under the influence of Todd Haynes, whose odes to Sirk ("Carol" and "Far from Heaven") are legendary, albeit box-office duds. Like Haynes, Almodovar is full of nostalgia for 1950s melodramas, which Sirk made an art form with Technicolor classics like "All that Heaven Allows" and "Magnificent Obsession." The beautifully shot, impeccably acted "Julieta" bears all the Sirk hallmarks, beginning with a gorgeous leading lady in a romantic entanglement that leaves her at odds with her offspring.
In this case, it's the title character, played in the present by Emma Suarez and in flashbacks by Adriana Ugarte. Their casting is Almodovar's biggest coup, because the two actresses couldn't look more alike, or be more adept at communicating the anguish of a mother marked for estrangement by her daughter. They consistently locate the drama between the lines of a simple, but devastating script by Almodovar culled from three short stories by Alice Munro.
It begins in the present, with a middle-aged Julieta preparing to relocate from her flat in Madrid to begin anew with her kind, caring lover, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti), in Portugal. But a chance meeting with an old friend of her daughter, Antia, changes everything. The woman, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), tells Julieta that she recently saw Antia at Lake Como, the first meeting in years for the once inseparable pals. Little does Beatriz know that it's been even longer since Julieta has seen Antia, who disappeared on her own volition 12 years earlier.
When Julieta returns to her flat, she reaches for paper and pen and begins to write a letter to Antia that's really a cathartic exercise for herself, and an opportunity for Almodovar to have her flashback to the night she met Antia's father, Xeno (Daniel Grao), a brutishly handsome fisherman riding the same train across Spain. They chat, share a drink and one thing leads to another, ending with them making love and conceiving Antia. Unknown to Julieta is the minor detail that Xeno is married; his wife in a coma with little chance of survival.
Typical of the film's love of convenience and coincidence, Julieta just happens to drop in on Xeno on the day of his wife's funeral, not that Xeno seems all that broken up. They soon marry and seem well on the road to happily ever after -- until the storm clouds (literally) gather and tragedy strikes like lightning. Then, Julieta's life falls completely apart in every soap-operatic way imaginable, capped by Antia vanishing while on a 3-week retreat in the Pyrenees. It's at this juncture you either go along for the bumpy ride, or write "Julieta" off as a rare Almodovar misstep.
What keeps the film afloat, at least for me, are the superb performances by Suarez and Ugarte, both of whom make your heart break as they let you see every ounce of Julieta's deadly combination of grief and fear over not knowing where her daughter has gone, and worse, why Antia purposely decided to torture her by filling her with worry and guilt. They're also excellent at casting an aura of self-awareness and intelligence befitting a scholar of classic literature. And what could befit Julieta more than Greek tragedy? Almodovar also has a bit of fun in providing a juicy role for one of his earliest muses in Rossy de Palma ("Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"), who chews scenery as Xeno's villainous housekeeper, Marian. Any resemblances to Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock's "Rebecca" are purely intentional and wonderfully delicious.
Same for the film's ultra-appealing look and strong sense of style; almost a given for Almodovar, who indulges his love of reds and blues to mirror the heat and passion of Julieta's relationship with Xeno, as well as the coldness of her abandonment by her daughter. Even better, "Julieta" clocks in at just over 90 minutes, a welcome respite at a time when nearly every Oscar contender stretches well beyond the 2-hour mark. It's short, bittersweet and to the point. And it's Almodovar, a filmmaker who even at his slightest is never less than fascinating.
Cast includes Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti and Michelle Jenner.
(R for some sexuality/nudity)