Julieta (Emma Suarez) tries to pack all of her books to take with her as she leaves Madrid to move to Portugal with her boyfriend. Everything is going according to plan until she runs into Bea, her daughter Antia’s childhood best friend, who tells her that she saw her at the Alps with her two sons in tow. Julieta reveals that she has not seen her daughter since she went on a retreat 12 years ago and never came back. Distraught, she leaves her boyfriend up in the air, moves back to her old apartment, and starts to write everything she ever wanted to say to her daughter in a notebook, with a sudden desire to find her again after all the years that have passed. She begins her story when she was younger (Adriana Ugarte), meeting Xoan (Daniel Grao), the love of his life, on a night train to Madrid.
To be totally blunt, the movie kind of bored me. I am no stranger to Almodovar’s body of work, but I guess what I really admire about his films is the rollercoaster ride of not knowing what is going to happen next, as well as being bombarded with plot twists that leave you in awe. Julieta simply does not have that element, although it is still totally in line with the director’s trademark of anchoring his narrative on strong female characters. There are no big revelations here. In the end, we are just following the story of a woman victimized by circumstances, trying to find a way back to normal life, or at least a semblance of it.
Despite the rather lackluster flow of events, the film is not devoid of cinematic artistry. There are plenty of scenes shot in such a way that it feels as though you are watching moving art. There is that one sequence with a stag running through the snow as viewed from the train window. That shot is so visually appealing it comes off as surreal. And then there is the window scene at Xoan’s house overlooking the sea, which looks like a painting in motion. In a way, it is that delicate attention to such tiny details that makes you admire the film as an art piece.
There is a scene that I find really symbolic. As a younger Julieta battles a bout of catatonic depression in the bath tub, Antia gets her out of the water with Bea’s help. She dries her mother’s (Ugarte) head with a towel, and then uncovers her face revealing an slightly older version of her (Suarez). Not only is the transition clever, but also rife with the reality of life we have to deal with every day, the mundane routine including something as unexciting as drying your hair after taking a shower. You look at yourself in the mirror. You do not notice it at first, but little by little you get older every day, both literally and figuratively. And then you just realize one day that a couple of years have already passed. You’re still you, supposedly wiser, but not quite, falling prey to this game we call life. This scene is plain genius.
By the way, this film was supposed to be Almodovar’s English language debut, with Meryl Streep portraying BOTH the younger and the older Julieta. You don’t have to be a fan of either of them to get excited over that prospect. It would have been an epic collaboration between two respected veterans of cinema. But it never materialized. Almodovar said that he had no confidence in his English to write a good screenplay, and that his knowledge of New York, where it was supposed to be set, was lacking for him to be able to imbibe the spirit of the place. But this does not mean that either actress he chose failed to deliver. In fact, it is their acting that makes the film tolerable most of the time, because they manage to effortlessly display the vulnerability of the character at different stages in her life.
Even the ending is rather anti-climactic for me, but perhaps it is Almodovar’s ode to life itself, a reaffirmation that not everything will make sense, but the world will keep on turning anyway. Besides, isn’t that the very premise the film is based on? Moving on? So should you. If you want a more intriguing Almodovar film, I suggest you start with Volver before you backtrack to the more controversial ones.