Pedro Almodovar made his career out of his love of women. His early cannon (Women on The Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, High Heels…) was pure melodrama executed with a Spanish cherry over-the-top. His mid-career work, which got him noticed in America (Talk to Her, All About My Mother…), saw him delve deeper into motherhood and marriage as his key themes. His greatest masterpiece (Volver) was a culmination of that decades spanning adoration of the female emotional and physical form. But Volver was a decade ago, and while Almodovar’s forays into genre cinema since (the musical I’m So Excited and body-horror The Skin I Live In) were fun diversions, true fans of his work have been waiting for him to go back to what he does best. With Julieta, the wait is over.
The story of a woman, and her decades spanning loss is so custom made for Almodovar’s work and looks so purely, iconically Almodovar on the screen, it is hard to imagine that, for once, it didn’t come from him. Known as a writer-director, here he turns to a three inter-connected stories by Alice Munro for his inspiration. And while Munro’s work usually invokes cold, somewhat tortured set-ups, Almodovar paints his world with bright blues and reds, with the sea and Spanish cityscapes as backdrops, making it feel liketruly his own candy-colored emotional wonderland.
The story elegantly, and chronologically unfolds in the shape of a letter Julieta (played in middle age by Emma Suarez and in flashbacks by Adriana Ugarte) writes to her daughter, who she had not seen in twelve years. She tells her about how she met her father, about their love, about her being born, about her grandparents and family friends, about the life they lived, about how it all came to a halting end, about how they all lost each other, about the guilt she carries. She writes to her without knowing where to send her this letter, in a building she does not want to leave because it is the last address her daughter knows for her, hoping possibly against hope that that one day soon her daughter would need her, and would know where to find her.
The material is what Douglas Sirk dreams were made of in the 50s, which means it is material Pedro Almodovar dreams are made of in the 2010s. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but to those who enjoy their emotional drama pure and free of any distractions, this movie may as well be a belated Christmas present. The two leads are perfect: glamorous and sad, with the kind of bone structures you can build a whole film on. As they gorgeously suffer, they are surrounded by a cast that includes some of Almodovar’s stand-bys, including Suzi Sanchez as Julieta’s Mother, and most notably for his fans, Rossy De Palma, the Picasso faced, crimson lipped mainstay of his early work, now playing against her usual glamorous type as the meddlesome maid Marian, who may hold the keys to the whole mystery. Her presence is just the final nudge to the viewer to acknowledge that this is vintage Almodovar.
He lets the movie breathe while never underestimating the viewer’s ability to enjoy a little strategic lack of exposition, knowing that NOT knowing it all (until it is time to know) just adds to the romance of it all. In a time where everything is often painstakingly and painfully spelled out for us on the big screen, a movie like this feels like a luxurious box of candy. It’s an opportunity to savor a delicious, slightly guilty-pleasured bite at a time, with each new flavor a little surprise. And you do, down to the final, tantalizing, wonderfully satisfyingly unsatisfying scene. Welcome back, Pedro, we missed you.