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In what was meant to be his English-language debut, Pedro Almodovar optioned a trio of short stor...

Film Review: ‘Julieta’

By 15:53:00

In what was meant to be his English-language debut, Pedro Almodovar optioned a trio of short stories by Pulitzer-winning Canadian author Alice Munro — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” — about a Vancouver woman named Juliet Henderson, but it wasn’t until he rechristened the character “Julieta” and relocated her to Madrid that the narrative became his own. Like 2003’s “Talk to Her,” the film opens with a red curtain, except that here, instead of rising to reveal a theater stage, the scarlet fabric actually appears to be breathing. In fact, it is not a curtain at all, but a woman’s red blouse, behind which lies the heart whose secrets Almodovar respectfully proceeds to explore — a process that will span three decades and demand two leading ladies to accomplish.

While “Julieta” represents a welcome return to the female-centric storytelling that has earned Almodovar his greatest acclaim, it is far from this reformed renegade’s strongest or most entertaining work. Instead, following the high-altitude frivolity of “I’m So Excited,” the director’s relatively tame 20th feature finds him once again adopting a serious (read, “respectable”) attitude, eschewing comedy and high-camp melodrama in favor of plain old mellow drama. While that approach should appeal to festivals (including Cannes, where the Sony Pictures Classics release could screen following its April 8 opening in Spain) and older arthouse patrons, it’s considerably less fun than the garishly over-the-top Almodovar of old.

Not that “Julieta” could possibly be mistaken for the work of any other auteur. From that red-curtain opening to the final scene, in which a ladybug-bright car navigates a twisting mountain road, the use of color alone is a dead giveaway. When we meet her, Julieta (first embodied by Emma Suarez) is perhaps 50 years old, and though her faux blonde hairstyle suggests a failing attempt to cling to earlier times, a lifetime of tragedy shows in her eyes.

She and her partner, Lorenzo (“Talk to Her’s” Dario Grandinetti), are packing up and preparing to leave for Portugal, but Julieta has unfinished business in Madrid, awakened by a chance encounter with a young woman named Bea (Michelle Jenner), who years before had been her daughter’s closest friend. This unexpected run-in is a shock for Julieta, who has spent the better part of the past 13 years coping with her daughter’s disappearance — only, we don’t know that yet.

Almodovar has constructed an extremely unconventional mystery, one in which there is no crime or culprit. Rather, his leading lady is herself a riddle, and the film itself is a sincere effort to understand her, retracing 32 years since the chance encounter that set her life on this particular course. Working in a superficially Hitchcockian vein, which might explain Julieta’s unnatural blonde ’do and the Bernard Herrmann-like echoes Alberto Iglesias’ otherwise soft-jazz score, Almodovar is aided in his detective work by Julieta herself, who is a reliable enough narrator, but clearly too close to the incidents themselves to recognize the true nature of her own tragedy.

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