Although the Palace Nova seemed to have wanted this film to go by unnoticed, virtually concealing its existence, there was a healthy audience on the evening when TVC saw it. “Healthy” in both senses – sizeable and not coughing or chomping on junk food. Indeed we all sat raptly for the entire 133 minutes, with nary a whisper. Almodovar ensures that his audience watch and listen carefully, anticipating easily-missed subtle hints to the secret which Julieta carries. And yet, it is not as subtle or complicated a plot as we would like it to be. Indeed Julieta is a rather thin and slight story – albeit told with love and skill. It is an adaptation of three stories by Alice Munro, rather than a work of one piece and unfortunately, it feels like it.
The thing which Julieta does not share – not even with her kind and devoted lover Lorenzo – is that her daughter Antia has not contacted her (other than rather nastily sending blank birthday cards on her (Antia’s) birthday) for twelve years. Julieta does not know what has become of her daughter, until she bumps into Antia’s childhood friend Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) on a Madrid street. Bea tells Julieta that she has seen Antia with her three children, at Lake Como. Julieta had planned to spend some time in (or perhaps move permanently to) Portugal with Lorenzo. Now, despite TVC‘s silently shouting at the screen, “No! Don’t do it!”, she abandons that plan in order to – not so much search for Antia – but ruminate on her loss. Dario Grandinetti’s performance as Lorenzo is the finest of the mostly fine performances in this film. His nuanced, restrained reactions to Julieta’s change of plans and to meeting her again at a time of crisis in her life are masterpieces.
Two lovely actors play Julieta – Adriana Ugarte as the 20-something teacher of classics (in a fright wig) and Emma Suarez as the 50-something childless mother. Both women convey Julieta’s wistfulness and vulnerability but they look nothing alike – and perhaps that is the point – the moment at which Ugarte is replaced by Suarez after a life-changing tragedy in Julieta’s life is gimmicky but psychologically ingenious.
Julieta writes a letter to her daughter, explaining the past, which we see in a series of flashbacks. The writing of the letter – a hackneyed device, if ever there was one – is pointless in that the intended recipient, Antia, would learn very little from it that she doesn’t already know – and most probably nothing which would have changed her decision to abandon her mother.
Does everyone in Spain have superb style? The older Julieta moves from lovely apartment to lovely apartment, the young Julieta’s husband Xoan (Daniel Grao) (a fisherman with just three boats) lives in a beautiful house and has a housekeeper who makes Mrs Danvers look like a sweetheart (played rather heavy handedly by Rosy de Palma). Except when dishevelment denotes turmoil, every character seems to have just stepped out of the pages of Spanish Vogue (one in fact is a Vogue editor).
Water is important in this film. There is a moment, fascinating for students of Ancient Greek language in which the young Julieta explains the different emphases for three words meaning “sea” in Homer’s Odyssey.
The themes and tone of “Julieta” are redolent of those fabulous movies about a mystery – the Dutch version of The Vanishing and, in particular, Hidden – although those are far greater films.
Julieta is a slender film but absorbing. That quiet audience let out a little collective gasp at the sudden ending, which, like the ending of Hidden, comes too soon and yet just at the right time.