"I would like the audience not to be afraid that this movie is not full of humor," Pedro Almódovar told the New York Times last May. What the celebrated Spanish director (Talk to Her) neglected to mention were the other desirable elements that his latest is not full of. Namely, developed characters, a credible narrative, pacing unlikely to put the average viewer into a coma, and a point.
Julieta has been called a departure for the filmmaker, who's known for his bold visuals and fascination with family and LGBT themes. It certainly is, if by "departure" we mean a really dull and convoluted movie as opposed to a good one.
How badly did Almodóvar blow it? The picture lacks one meaningful or believable storyline despite being based on three stories by Nobel laureate Alice Munro. Sarah Polley (Away from Her) made a better film in 2006 out of just one. And she'd never directed a feature before!
The plot. I suppose this can't be put off any longer. The story lurches back and forth in time, a device employed with more grace in much of Munro's writing. In the present, Emma Suárez plays the title character, a middle-aged woman who has decided to relocate from Madrid to Portugal. But she changes her mind following a chance encounter with an old friend of her estranged daughter, who, she learns, is living in Switzerland. Julieta instead moves into the building where she had raised her daughter in hopes of being contacted. While waiting, she writes her life story in a long letter that then takes the form of flashbacks.
Adriana Ugarte plays the younger incarnation of the character and — since we're suddenly in the '80s — suggests a low-energy Melanie Griffith. On a train one night, a stranger takes a seat across from her and attempts to strike up a conversation. This inexplicably propels her into the bar car, where she meets another stranger. His name is Xoan (Daniel Grao) and, because he's younger and better looking, she strikes up a conversation with him. It's interrupted moments later when the train screeches to a stop — after running over the man from her compartment. That night, Julieta and Xoan have sex and, we later learn, conceive the aforementioned daughter.
From that point, Almodóvar's script does little beyond amassing an absurdly long list of coincidences and tragedies. Movie critic law prohibits revealing more; suffice it to say that virtually every character either personally meets with dire misfortune, looks on as tragedy befalls a loved one or both.
The director takes mindless melodrama to mathematically impossible extremes. For example, in a late scene, present-day Julieta is hit by a car as she crosses the street. By the movie's standards, this is the equivalent of a having a bad hair day. The incident is forgotten in a matter of minutes. A fate that, I fear, awaits the once-great director's new film, as well.
Fun fact: Far more interesting than the auteur's 20th screen creation is the reason you haven't heard more about it. Originally planning a festival tour to mark the milestone, Almodóvar canceled all media appearances last April when his name appeared among those leaked as part of the Panama Papers. That scandal revealed the identities and financial dealings of countless celebrities and world leaders who had set up shell corporations through Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co. Seeing his name in this who's who of shadies (Vladimir Putin, cartel bosses from Colombia and Mexico, not to mention Donald Trump), left the poor guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Julieta is now streaming on Amazon and iTunes.