Who’s That Girl? Almodóvar’s Julieta

julieta

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Julieta
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Opens December 21

Pedro Almodóvar is a cinephile par excellence, and as such has always paid homage to the directors whose work informed his sensibilities, from early John Waters camp (Pepi, Luci, Bom) to crushing Sirkian melodrama (All About My Mother). And yet, however referential his films can be, they have always felt distinctly Almodóvarian, as he’s one of very few filmmakers who has carved out their own space within the film landscape. An intense devotion to interconnectedness inspires his approach, with many of his films residing in a genre that is almost entirely his own—the Emotional Mystery, a sort of individualized epistemology. His now signature lush photography and penchant for temporal shifts allows him to structure a narrative in such a way that creates immense tension, even when the question at the heart of the story is rarely more than “who is she?”

In Julieta, the Spanish iconoclast’s magnificent 20th feature film over four decades, Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play Julieta at different periods in her life: Suárez as the middle-aged mother desperately searching for answers, and Ugarte the young woman and new mother whose actions catalyze the story. The viewer meets Julieta (Suárez) during a chance sidewalk encounter with Beatriz, a childhood friend of her daughter Antia, from whom she has been estranged for some time. Not knowing their recent history, Beatriz casually mentions that she has recently seen Antia, setting into motion Julieta’s renewed vow to reconnect. In typical Almodóvar fashion, the story unfolds through a series of flashbacks and memories, with younger Julieta (Ugarte) meeting Antia’s father and falling in love for the first time. A torrid affair and journey unfolds, with the type of stunning classicism and bristling pace that has come to signify Almodóvar’s later work.

However singular his syntheses of genres, Almodóvar’s best films are connected by their attention to the bonds between women, particularly mothers and daughters. Both Suárez and Ugarte manifest a regalness that has come to typical late-era Almodóvar heroines. As Julieta tries to find meaning in the search for her daughter, Suárez maintains a fragile steadiness that immediately draws the viewer in. Similarly, when younger Julieta tries to forge her path in love and life, Ugarte’s optimism and warmth feel very much at home in the canon of earlier Almodóvar women. The performances are strikingly complementary, particularly given that Ugarte and Suárez did not compare notes or rehearse together before shooting commenced.

Julieta was originally intended as Almodóvar’s long-awaited foray into English language filmmaking, an endeavor that was at one point even rumored to be starring Meryl Streep (!!). To the dismay of many gay American cinephiles, myself included, this didn’t come to pass. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results here: Julieta finds Almodóvar working at his peak, confident in the cinematic syntax and legacy that precedes him.

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