The first words that come to your mind after seeing a film by Pedro Almodóvar are usually ‘flamboyant’, ‘over-the-top’, or perhaps ‘fabulous’. His latest offering, showing at the 69th Cannes film festival, is more likely to have you thinking ‘efficient’, ‘workman-like’ and possibly the dreaded ‘average’. It’s as if Will Self suddenly wrote a Mills and Boon bodice ripper. Julieta is a lifelong mystery with shades of Hitchcock, and it is actually an improvement on his misjudged comedy I’m So Excited, but it has nothing on the excitement of his run in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Julieta (Emma Suárez) is a successful woman in her mature years, preparing to retire from the city life. She’s going to move out with her writer boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) to Portugal and never come back. However, a chance encounter with Bea (Michelle Jenner), a friend of her daughter’s, leads her to completely change her mind. Instead of escaping the city and its painful memories, she dumps Lorenzo and moves to her old building and here sits with her notepads writing narrative voiceover for the rest of the picture.
The story she tells, addressed to her estranged daughter Antía (Priscilla Delgado), tells of a love affair with kindly fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao), which begins on a train journey and is already tainted by guilt and death. At this time in her life, Julieta (as a young woman played by Adriana Ugarte) teaches classical literature but she is drawn to Xoan, though he’s married to an invalid wife. The wife dies conveniently enough, though it adds another shade of guilt and Julieta and Xoan marry and have Antía. Not all is happy in the household and housekeeper Marian (played in a Nanny McPhee key by Rossy de Palma) prophesises doom. Sure enough following an argument with her husband, tragedy does indeed ensue and Julieta moves to the city with her daughter, where things appear to be going well and life once more placed on a solid footing until Antía suddenly disappears, leaving a message that she never wishes to see her mother again.
Adapted from a series of short stories by Alice Munro, Runaway: Chance, Soon and Silence, published in 2004, Almodóvar moves the story along at a fair clip and the performances – especially of Suárez and Ugarte – make the characters real enough for us to care. Visually as well, the colour-scheme is polished with gem like greens and fire engine reds glowing under the Spanish sun. However, for all the glib élan on display, there is very little being said, above and beyond the slickness of a well-tuned melodrama. The plot always risks revealing its essential silliness and there isn’t much wit or humour to alleviate the mood.
In the press notes, Almodóvar reveals that he has made the film to be viewed twice, so that once the plot is revealed audiences can enjoy the film a second time, knowing what has happened. Despite it being enjoyable enough the first time, there seems little cause for a repeat viewing any time soon.