Monday, 19 September 2016
Ladies Of Spain
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
UK cinema release print.
Julieta is the latest movie directed by Spanish treasure Pedro Almodóvar and based on three short stories from Alice Munro’s collection Runaway. I’ve been told that many believe that this is a ‘return to form’ for Almodóvar and all I can say to that is... I’m not so sure he was ever really off form. Okay, so I didn’t like The Skin I Live In (reviewed by me here), and I didn’t see his last movie, I’m So Excited, either... but up until then I’d say I personally found him to be a great director and have liked maybe 75% of his total output. I remember being absolutely blown away by Broken Embraces, for example.
I mention Broken Embraces because, like that movie, Julieta is a good example of Almodóvar’s cinematic art showing signs of being fairly self referential but, thankfully, not yet a parody of himself, as yet. Although he did come close to that in some ways, perhaps, with one of his lead characters in Broken Embraces acting in that story's 'film within a film' parody of his early hit, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. In Julieta, the references are much less blatant than that but.. they are there. For example, one character near the end of the movie refers to himself as acting as if he was in a Patricia Highsmith novel, someone who Almodóvar has often referred to as providing the template on which he’s based many a character on. Another example would be the character Julieta owning some music by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who, of course, did the music for Almodóvar’s High Heels.
Julieta is a gripping tale of the title character played by Emma Suárez in half the film and bookending a younger version of her in flashback, played by Adriana Ugarte. It tells of her writing a letter to a daughter who walked out of her life 12 years earlier and so we get the story of her encounters with death and the dramas of, ultimately, a torn apart family. And, when people say this is a return to form for Almodóvar, perhaps they mean it’s a return to the kind of themes which were often found in his movies from around the mid 1990s and for most of the next ten years of his career. It’s almost like a rerun of some of those movies in thematic elements but, frankly, when we see a new superhero or zombie movie variant every other month, I’m not going to knock the director for returning to familiar territory... just like I wouldn’t knock Woody Allen for constantly returning to the kind of thematic content that he does best.
The story is one of the elements that would tell me, if I was watching this film unaware of who directed it, that it was an Almodóvar movie. The other give away is just how meticulous the mise-en-scene is for the first half an hour. Everything is rigidly defined and Almodóvar is all about playing with vertical sectioning of the screen here. He puts people into different segments of the screen and there’s even a wonderful shot where Darío Grandinetti is standing in Julieta’s apartment in close up at the intersection of two different walls, one masking the other, as though two flat, bright sections of colour are splitting down the middle of his skull... it’s amazing stuff. I did notice, though, that after the film starts moving into flashback territory, the style loosens up a little, with a more easy going, less rigid sense of spatial awareness taking over from the very blatantly controlled first section. I don’t know if this was a specific decision by Almodóvar to subconsciously say something about the confines of Julieta’s life after the tragedy at the centre of her drama comes to pass or whether this was just a coincidence but... something tells me this might have been a deliberate artistic decision.
The actors are all fantastic, of course, with everyone I’ve mentioned so far giving it their all and, for aged fans of Almodóvar’s work, there’s even a role for Rossy De Palma here. Also worth a mention are Daniel Grao as the love of Julieta’s life, Xoan, and a great turn by Inma Cuesta as local sculptor Ava (in reality, her fascinating work is all by artist Miquel Navarro). They are all aided by a script that really keeps you interested and sympathetic with the characters and a, really not bad, score by longtime Almodóvar composer Alberto Iglesias, which is once again mixed into the foreground like a 1950s Hollywood style accompaniament and seems a little out of kilter with he way most scores these days are mixed but, it works really well and the prominence and style he uses here has almost become an Almodóvar trademark in itself.
The one thing I do feel a little bit disappointed in was the ending. The film concludes at a point which feels like we are just about to get some answers as to why a certain thing has happened in the movie (see how careful I’m being about spoilers here people?) and, instead, Almodóvar just lets the credits role before we get the scene we want to see. Which is frustrating. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think I can see exactly why he’s used the ending he has but, even though it probably is the perfect conclusion for the movie, in all honesty, I would have loved to see the scene which two of the characters find themselves driving to at the end of the film.
That being said, Julieta is still a great little movie and a welcome change of pace from the ‘Hollywood bang-bang, crunch-crunch’ cinema which has been the main cinematic diet over the summer months. I had to make a journey into London to see this because my local Cineworld had decided not to show it but I’m glad I did because it’s nice to see something more meticulous and engaging at the pictures every now and again (or most of the time would be good, to be honest). It’s probably not the best by this director, to be fair, but it is up there with the ‘very good’ category as far as I’m concerned... which is a great deal better than a lot of other director’s ‘very good’ movies, to be fair. If you are into this celluloid artist’s work and have liked his movise in the past, then you probably won’t have any problems with this one. Another canvass in the portfolio of one of contemporary cinema’s great creators. Give it a go if it’s playing somewhere local to you.