The titular Julieta in Pedro Almodovar’s sumptuous but somewhat underwhelming new film, Julieta, is played by two actresses, so as to facilitate the telling of her story across a number of years. The older Julieta, who narrates the film for the most part, is played by Emma Suarez, and the younger Julieta, is played by Adriana Ugarte. For much of the film we see the two women as Julieta in parallel, as the film cuts backwards and forwards between them, with the young Julieta’s story framed by the older Julieta telling a story to her estranged daughter.
But there’s a point in the story within the story in which Julieta needs to age and become the older woman of the present day. Almodovar achieves this by having Julieta swamped in a large towel by her daughter, and as she dries her hair, the switch is made. It’s a smart approach, and the kind of simple but brilliant solution to a problem that Almodovar excels at. It’s just a shame that moments of genius like this aren’t in service of something more meaty and interesting.
The film is ostensibly about guilt, Julieta’s guilt. This overriding emotion begins to infect the character early on, as she takes a train which a man throws himself off of and commits suicide. Just moments before this he had tried to talk to her, but she had taken his efforts to connect to be unwanted advances, and she ran away. Later in the story her husband dies, and again she feels a sense of guilt, not helped by her daughter ultimately blaming her for his death.
This intense guilt spreads and courses through Julieta’s veins like a virus, but this emotion never really breaks through the screen and into your own thoughts and feelings. Both Suarez and Ugarte are perfectly fine in their respective Julieta roles, but they’re not delivering performances that reach out into the audience and pull hard on your heart strings; they and the story of the film’s various guilt-ridden twists just flicker on the screen a little dully, without sparking into life.
The filmmaking is anything but dull though, as Almodovar’s wonderful eye for production design and gorgeous approach to framing and camerawork is all on display here to the nth degree. The film opens with a shot of Julieta’s red dress in close-up, flowing and throbbing in an intense fashion that brings to mind something far more intimate than a dress. It’s absolutely mesmerising and the kind of image that Almodovar seems so adept at finding and/or constructing, but it holds little real meaning for the rest of the film. Like so much in Julieta, it’s stunning to look at but it’s not in service of a narratively, emotionally or thematically rich narrative and therefore it simply feels wasted.