Billowing red gowns. Green bags. A big white clock set against a wall the color of blood. Seashell wallpaper. Like Max Ophuls’ dollies, Steven Spielberg’s editing, and Quentin Tarantino’s punctuative profanity, Pedro Almodovar’s use of color distinguishes him from contemporaries, a signature on a canvas.
Which is why the prospect of Almodovar adapting the short stories of Alice Munro sounded daft. The Canadian master works by accretion: exchanges and moments banal in themselves tremble with possibilities when set together. Julieta sets the realist against the hyper-romantic. I wish the picture had been more alert to this delicious clash of sensibilities. The result is an underwhelming and deflated movie. Little of Munro remains and,surprisingly, of Almodovar either.
Munro could have called many of her stories “Runaway,” the title of the collection in which the interconnected “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” appear. A chance meeting with her daughter’s school friend, now an adult, sends Munro’s protagonist on a quest of remembered but continual pain. This daughter, speaking with the clarity of the truly addled, has joined a Christian cult. She refuses to be found. Juliet’s guilt is, like many burdens carried by Munro’s women, a thorn that quietly and painfully digs into her side. She has learned to absorb the pain into the quotidian until it’s a mere malady.
Aldomovar’s Julieta has the vivacity of his best characters; thanks to Emma Suarez, she doesn’t need the bold colors. The missing daughter is called Antía, about whom Julieta learns that she has settled in Switzerland but still won’t see her. This sparks the strongest part of the picture: a meticulous approximation of the texture of memory. Using the device of a journal read in voice-over, a gorgeous sequence shows a younger Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte as a dead ringer for Rosanne Cash in 1985, meeting Xoan (Daniel Grao), the fisherman who becomes her lover and Antía’s father. A couple of pans between Xoan and Julieta in the tight spaces of a train is enough to establish how hot they are for each other — or how hot they were according to the way Julieta remembers it. From the windows they glimpse a stag.
These scenes have a richness that Almodovar hasn’t approached since the early 2000s. The casual poetry of the stag echoes the insert of a beautiful man diving elegantly into a pool while Caetano Veloso sings “Cucurrucucú Paloma” in 2002’s Talk to Her; as a filmmaker Almodovar has learned to mix tones and approaches like a virtuoso. But having established the stakes Almodovar loses interest. Telenovela lines like “Haven’t I a right to happiness after your mother died?” land with splats — a stunner from a guy who treats soap scripts like missalettes. He does take a risk: the older Antia doesn’t appear onscreen; however, the decision has the effect of giving Julieta an unexpected listlessness. Little feels at stake even when Antía’s obstinacy starts exacting a cost on Juliet’s health
A few critics have embraced Julieta, and I understand: Almodovar goes for impressions that are more likely in a Raul Ruiz or Visconti picture.But those masters required the visual equivalent of rolling periods. At a trim and not unwelcome ninety-six minutes Julieta tries with the best of intentions to approach the luminous brevity of a good short story. It’s the best kind of semi-success: an honorable one.