After the high-camp of I’m So Excited and the queasy body-horror of The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar returns to his roots with a story that shines a light into the dark recesses of grief.
It initially appears to be a modern noir, a detective story complete with moody jazz soundtrack, albeit one drenched in Almodóvar’s reliably poppy colour palette. But it dissolves into something else as we’re transported back in time, languidly piecing together the events of the last 30 years.
On the eve of leaving Madrid for a new life abroad, a chance encounter shakes Julieta up so badly she unpacks her belongings and abandons her partner, retreating to a lonely existence in a new part of town. We learn she has an estranged daughter, but not what caused the rift. We assume the trajectory of the movie will work towards the reveal of some dark family secret, but Almodóvar’s film rarely takes the path you expect, remaining oblique, unwilling to divulge much information about the girl who becomes a mysterious void at the heart of the movie.
The film is divided into two segments: Julieta’s life before and after two life-defining losses. Scenes filmed in the present-day are muted and delicate, with Emma Suárez playing a detached, fragile Julieta, at odds with her dreamy younger self, as played by Adriana Ugarte (a scene in which one turns into the other before our eyes is a brilliant piece of filmmaking).
Julieta is most recognisably Almodóvar’s during the flashback sequences, where the palette pulses to life and the sets pop with period detail. A pivotal scene on a train is especially impressive, a kitsch feast that lays the foundations for the rest of the movie, culminating in some very sexy sex.
Julieta is a classics teacher, and references to Greek mythology appear throughout. Just as Odysseus was unable to resist the draw of the sea, so are these characters unable to overcome their natures, and Almodóvar shows our human dramas – the loves and heartbreaking losses – are every bit as compelling as those involving gods and legends.