- Written by
- Pedro Almodovar
- Directed by
- Pedro Almodovar
- Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte
Early in Pedro Almodovar's latest film, Julieta, a stag runs alongside a train at night. Silhouetted against snow, he is glimpsed through a screen: the ghostly reflections of the passengers and the carriage interior hovering on the train's windows. From inside that lit carriage, he seems to belong to another world, charging magnificently, as powerful as the train. And that is the last time anything magnificent appears in this increasingly melodramatic story about a woman's grief over the mysterious disappearance of her adult daughter.
Emma Suarez plays Julieta, a perfectly controlled middle-aged woman preparing to leave Madrid permanently to move to Portugal with her sympathetic new boyfriend. But then a chance encounter in the street with an old friend of her daughter's throws her plans and her emotions into disarray. She throws over the boyfriend and moves back into an old apartment where she sits down to write an explanation of events.
From there, we get the story in flashback to that fateful and eerie train journey on which she first met the man who was to become her daughter's father. Switching to a younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), the film follows the story of her relationship with the handsome fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao) and the circumstances of his tragic death. A grieving Julieta then moves to Madrid to raise her young daughter who grows up only to abandon her.
The central mystery in the film – why the daughter runs away – is never fully resolved, which might be interesting if their relationship, or indeed any of the relationships in the film, were deeply observed. They aren't; much of the dialogue (to judge through subtitles) is pedestrian and the actors' performances reflect that. Suarez's Julieta just looks pained much of the time; Ugarte's younger Julieta exchanges obvious liveliness for a big mope. Grao hangs about looking good.
Despite the promise of his improbable source material, the insightful and delicate short stories of Alice Munro, Almodovar has little time to develop these characters' emotional ties because there is so much clutter in his plot, a soap opera full of improbable coincidences, premature deaths and sad declines.
The Spanish director, who established himself with colourful sex farces in the 1980s, has turned to thrillers and melodramas in recent years; Julieta is not a strong advocate for his career. It is a busy narrative machine that raises expectations of a tidy ending; instead Almodóvar offers an artfully mysterious conclusion that seems unearned by the movie that preceded it – except, of course, for that lonely stag.