It’s been a little while since the arrival of a new film from veteran Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar could be considered a major cinematic event. In the 1980s, his racy, flamboyant sex comedies always seemed to be breaking a new taboo. In the 90s, he shifted to a more mature style, churning out a string of masterful melodramas that peaked with 1999’s Oscar-winning “All About My Mother.” Since then, though, he has plateaued, while still operating at a high level of craftsmanship.
His last two films have felt like efforts to break free of this rut. The twisted psycho-sexual thriller “The Skin I Lived In” was successful. The strained goofiness of the airplane comedy “I’m So Excited!” was not. With “Julieta,” Almodóvar executes a return to the color- and emotion-saturated genre that has served him so well, and comes up with his best work in it since perhaps 2004’s “Bad Education.”
Once thing you can count on from Almodóvar, through thick and thin, is genius-level casting of his female leads, drawn from an apparently bottomless pool of stunningly capable and beautiful Spanish actresses. To the roster of Carmen Maura, Penelope Cruz, Victoria Abril, and Marisa Paredes, we can add Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, who each play “Julieta”’s title role at different points in her life.
We first meet her in middle-age (Suárez), as she’s making the final preparations to leave her Madrid apartment and move to Portugal with her romantic partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). She has a random sidewalk encounter with a younger woman who it seems was once good friends with Julieta’s daughter. After their awkward conversation, Julieta abruptly changes her plans, starts avoiding Lorenzo, and sits down to write the letter to her daughter, Antía, that will form the framing device for most of the movie.
The flashbacks transport us first to a train compartment in the 1980s, and into the presence of Ugarte, whose screen impact is as riveting and bold as any of the great film stars, mixing the up-front gaze of Rita Hayworth and the sidelong half-smile of Jessica Lange. On this train, Julieta, a classics instructor, meets Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman, and following a bizarre and unexpected railroad delay, they share a night of passion.
Weeks later, she shows up on his doorstep in a seaside village, and events begin to transpire that will ultimately explain the older Julieta’s sense of bereavement and guilt. Of course, much of the pleasure of a melodrama derives from the storyteller’s skillful unpeeling of narrative events, where the most unexpected events seem inevitable and the revelations pack an emotional punch. Which is a long way of saying: no spoilers here.
Even if he’s abandoned the most outrageous visual flourishes of, say, “Kika,” an Almodóvar film is instantly recognizable for the way colors pop, wardrobe is expertly chosen and worn, and everyone is several degrees more attractive than real life. As vibrant as every frame is with sense and sensation, though, it’s never garish or overwrought.
At the heart of “Julieta” is the double performance of Suárez and Ugarte, which calls to mind similar efforts from Luis Bunuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” to Barry Jenkins’ recent “Moonlight.” If even one of the performers fails to convince, or seems to be ‘playing’ the other, the whole thing would collapse. But these two women (and the supporting cast around them, which includes Almodóvar standby Rossy de Palma) fully inhabit the world their director has created, which he in turn masterfully adapted from a linked series of three short stories by the Canadian writer Alice Munro.
Much like the recent “The Handmaiden,” this transposition of these stories from Western Canada to sunny Spain demonstrates the flexibility and universality of a smartly drawn authorial vision. And in this case, it has given a welcome jolt to a director with plenty of gas in the tank after twenty feature films.
(“Julieta” opens at the Regal Fox Tower on Friday, January 27)