The following review is part of our coverage of the 2016 New York Film Festival.
Julieta is a reminder that even great directors make bad movies. Pedro Almodovar’s first film in three years is a plodding would-be mystery about a middle-aged woman wracked with grief after the sudden death of her husband. Adapted from a trio of short stories in Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway, the film represents a return to style for the Spanish auteur, if not substance. With cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu (My Life Without Me) at the helm, Julieta is as sumptuous as a ripe tomato. It looks fantastic. It’s also dreadfully dull.
Julieta (Emma Suarez) has recently decided to relocate to Portugal with her live-in boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). During a chance encounter, a childhood friend of her estranged daughter, Antía, informs Julieta that the girl, now an adult, has moved back to Madrid. Julieta immediately announces her intention to stay in the city, but won’t tell Lorenzo why. The man says that he knows Julieta has always had a private aspect to her life, something that she’s kept hidden all these years. Julieta asks him to keep respecting that privacy. She moves to her old apartment building and begins to write a letter to the daughter from whom she has drifted apart.
The film, which is told an epistolary structure, deals with a familiar Almodovar subject — the ghosts we refuse to acknowledge are haunting us. In the director’s masterful Volver, that theme is literal; a departed woman returns to Earth to resolve unfinished business, helping her daughter run a beauty salon in the meantime. Julieta’s demons are motivated, though, by guilt: During a train ride many years ago, a stranger sat across from her, looking for comfort and someone to talk to. Julieta, played in flashbacks by Adriana Ugarte, rejects him, and he throws himself off the train. Xoan (Daniel Grao), a handsome, bearded stranger, consoles her by saying that men don’t kill themselves over strange women, even ones as beautiful as Julieta.
Because Julieta and Xoan are the two most-good looking people in the film — the camera practically sighs in their beatific glow — they begin shagging like nymphomaniacs released from solitary confinement. There’s just one problem: In the grand tradition of Almodovar films, Xoan has a wife who is in a coma. Given that Leonor Watling previously played a comatose ballet dancer in Talk to Her, it would seem that Spain boasts an excess of lovelorn invalids. Julieta is not only derivative of earlier, better Almodovar films, but it’s frequently redundant. Julieta’s mother is suffering from what appears to be early Alzheimer’s, while her lonely father takes up with her attendant. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one ailing wife is a misfortune. Two looks like carelessness.
Eventually, Xoan and Julieta begin a family. Complications arise when the couple’s maid, Marian (Rossy De Palma), tells Julieta that her husband has been having an affair with Ava (Inma Cuesta), a long-time friend. She knew that the pair were intimate when they began dating, but not that the romance has continued. Julieta briefly approaches Xoan about his infidelity, but he avoids the argument by going fishing instead, despite the threat of inclement weather.
A more honest title for Julieta would be Don’t Talk to Her. Aside from a vindictive maid whose off-handed cruelty goes unexplained, the characters never confront each other about their problems. The dishes, so desperate to be smashed, remain unmoved. Almodovar’s characters are often strangers to their own feelings, but Julieta is too subtle for its own good, robbing itself of any sort of dramatic tension or stakes. Many of the film’s most crucial moments take place offscreen. After Julieta, then in her 30s, finds herself aggrieved at the loss of her husband, her teenage daughter runs off to a religious camp, where she decides that her life would be best without her mother in it. When Julieta goes to pick up Antía (Blanca Parés), she has already left, resolved to start anew without saying goodbye.
The decision to leave so much to the imagination — including Antía’s reason for abandoning her mother — is meant to build suspense toward the final reveal, but it’s not much of a puzzle. Julieta is like an Agatha Christie novel whose solution is printed on the first page, leaving viewers to wander through a half-baked melodrama about a crappy daughter and her clueless mother. Unless you’ve recently been hit by a MAC truck, it’s easy to figure out why Antía left, and trust me, the motive wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.
Julieta, though, is as visually divine as it is dramatically neutered. Painted with Almodovar’s usual palette of bold primary colors, the film is breathtaking to behold; the director has particular fun with the aesthetics of the 1980s, the decade of feathered hair and Cruella de Vil shoulder pads. Its early scenes, which recall Douglas Sirk mixed with a trashy dime-store novel, also share the time-honored appeal of seeing two immensely attractive people put the wand in the Chamber of Secrets, so to speak. Suarez and Grao — who looks like he was born into a flannel shirt — do the humpy-squirty in a train, a boat, a bed, and practically anywhere else that wouldn’t get them arrested for indecent exposure. If Julieta weren’t such a crushing bore, it might have been a lusty little delight.