Pedro Almodovar is a director who is prepared to take risks. It’s one reason why the simple words “a film by Almodovar” in his films’ titles is enough to excite.
His new film, the story of Julieta meeting her child Antia’s father Xoan and their lives after, is based on a series of Alice Munro short stories.
Themes include terminal illness, death, estrangement, sudden death, remorse, regret, guilt, loss and grief. There’s not much here to raise a smile.
Much of the suspense is based on Julieta’s unfolding story.
It is Almodovar’s great skill, as in many of his other films, that amid the tragedy there is a celebration of love, friendship, life, human creativity and beauty.
This is perhaps his slowest paced film ever. That’s the major risk that he takes. Even the “action” takes place in slow motion.
That’s not to say it lacks momentum.
And like all Almodovar’s work it’s marked by an attempt to make every shot a thing of elegance. This alone can sustain a viewer’s interest almost as much as the story itself.
It is an achievement to be so minimalist in plot development yet so rich in the end result.
This is a director utterly obsessed with painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and fashion. He sees culture as a fundamental part of life and he’s not afraid to show us the things he likes.
Former musical collaborator, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, for example, has his name shown on the spine of a book not once but twice. Even Xoan’s friend Ava’s sculptures are reminiscent of Picasso and other modernists’ African inspired sculptures.
Few do costume as well as Almodovar. The use of colour is fascinating too, particularly the way red and blue are used within the central family unit.
And what Almodovar film would be complete without a stunning musical score? Once again it’s by long-time collaborator Alberto Iglesias.
Julieta, a school teacher, is played brilliantly by both Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte.
Fans may miss some of his acting mainstays like Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz who have brought so much to his films.
But Ugarte and Suarez are welcome additions—let’s hope they return.
Above all Almodovar is interested in the complexities of “the human condition” and he examines this with great warmth.
It’s a long time since he was the rising virtuoso of the post-Franco “Movida” cultural movement.
But what still makes him quite unique is his use almost entirely of female protagonists and actors.
Expectation has been raised that this might be a return to the form of 2006’s Volver.
Some found Broken Embraces (2009) less engaging, The Skin I Live In (2011) a bit outlandish and I’m so Excited (2013) too farcical.
It’s certainly a return to emotional themes that Almodovar is brilliant at portraying.
But is it a tour de force of the likes of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), All About My Mother (1999), or Volver?
No, sadly, it’s not.