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Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is a complex, gorgeously styled film that rings so many bells. Bells from the deep, tolling themes of dream and memory. Wedding bells, with characters flung into blissful unions that will surely triumph and endure. The Lutine Bell, with news of another life or relationship crashed on the rocks.
And artistic alarm bells too. There is a thin line, and always has been, between two opposite verdicts on a work of art. “It’s about so many things.” And “What the hell is it about?” Julieta is often wanderingly plotted; you may need your own inner GPS. Two actresses play the title character at different ages. First we meet the older, plaintively beautiful Emma Suárez, a fiftyish teacher spun back from committing her life to a boyfriend by news of a long-estranged daughter. Then we flashback to Adriana Ugarte’s blond-mopped youthful Julieta, setting out on life, love and motherhood.
The film unfurls chronologically after that, returning to Suárez in a coup de cinéma that’s like a domestic riff on Kubrick’s bone and spaceship elision. The older woman’s face emerges from a hair-rubbing towel that has just hidden the younger face.
But with Almodóvar even linearity isn’t simple. A script combining three Alice Munro stories slaloms through marriage, betrayal, death, hope, fear, dreams and midlife crisis while skiing in the broad direction of resolving the mother-daughter crux. With this film-maker, though, sidewindings themselves are seductive, even bewitching. Like Hitchcock he makes the simple revelatory, the seemingly serendipitous poetic and organic.
On the wall behind a quarrel scene, a red clock’s big white hands look like crossed swords. A love bout on a moving train is reflected in the night window so that the couple’s blurred, febrile grace rhymes with the image, still fresh in our mind’s eyes, of a stag bounding through the train-side snow.
What is Julieta about? “Search me” some will shrug — and that’s the exact right answer. Search yourself. In this drama of an unfolding life every viewer must find his or her own match with the story’s contours. At its heart the film is about the person you make, or fate makes, the pole star of your life. Just when you think it’s a parent, or a close best friend, or a new love partner, you find it’s the child you haven’t seen for years: the child who is the missing piece in the jigsaw you thought you had long ago completed.