Awash in color, feminine psychodrama and heightened emotion, “Julieta” is a classic Pedro Almodóvar film – or, more accurately, a classicized version of the Almodóvar films his fans have come to adore.
Adapted from three short stories from Alice Munro’s “Runaway” collection, this mother-daughter head trip revisits familiar terrain from the filmmaker who gave us the ecstatically lurid melodramas “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “All About My Mother.” But adapting his temperament to match Munro’s signature restraint, Almodóvar tones down his usual over-the-topness in “Julieta,” which owes as much to the sleek, moody thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock as it does to the supersaturated extravagance of Douglas Sirk.
The film begins as the title character – a chic middle-aged classics professor living in Madrid – is preparing to move to Portugal with her dashing husband, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). When Julieta encounters a friend of her daughter Antía, from whom she has been estranged for several years, she makes the instinctive decision to stay put in the city. Julieta moves back to the apartment where she and Antía lived together, recapitulating the past as a way of understanding how their lives grew apart and embarking on a mission to knit them back together.
Nodding to the movies and telenovelas that he’s always loved, Almodóvar tells the ensuing story – much of it told in flashback – with well-calibrated suspense and captivating brio, interrogating notions of time, doppelgängers and fate with his characteristically fastidious attention to color and detail. With a palette dominated by shades of red and blue, partly filmed on the romantic seaside of Galicia, where Julieta and Antía’s early life together was spent, “Julieta” is a nonstop visual feast, its design elements alone providing welcome escape from the dreary world. Almodóvar has even assembled some familiar faces from his informal repertory company of actors, most notably Rossy de Palma, here donning a frizzy wig to play a housekeeper who bears more than a passing resemblance to the forbidding Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca.”
Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith – who is explicitly referenced here – may provide the most obvious inspirational subtext for “Julieta,” but Almodóvar makes their most familiar conventions his own, most notably in his ideas for casting the doubles who populate his film. The moment when Julieta, alternately played by Emma Suárez in middle age and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self, transforms from a young woman to an older one is just one of many masterstrokes in a story whose own identity slips from the slow burn of an erotic thriller to a far deeper, more wrenching study of parental loss, self-recrimination and grief.
Suárez is particularly affecting as a woman on the verge, not of a breakdown, but of being engulfed by absence. At its most superficially enjoyable, “Julieta” is a mystery story propelled by the kinds of coincidence and catastrophe that Almodóvar might have once mined for maximum camp value.
Whether by dint of his source material or his own maturity, the filmmaker has invested the surface sheen with tenderness and emotional depth. It’s no surprise that “Julieta” is marvelous to look at, but it possesses just as much substance as style.
Four stars. Rated R. Contains some sexuality and nudity. In Spanish with subtitles. 98 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.