While Pedro Almodovar’s last film — the zany airplane comedy “I’m So Excited!” — was too over-the-top even by his standards, his latest, “Julieta,” isn’t over the top enough. It may be unfair to hold a director accountable for the stylish ambition of his previous efforts, but his 20th feature shows hints of his elegant and surprising filmmaking without ever realizing its potential. Returning to the female-centric tales that have defined his best work for years — from “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” to “All About My Mother” — “Julieta” offers a fine pair of performances from Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte as the titular woman in two stages of her troubled life. But its unassuming approach doesn’t give them a whole lot to do in this surprisingly conventional movie, a surface-deep variation on thematic terrain that Almodovar has probed with far better results before.
Part of the disconnect stems from the source material, a series of short stories by Alice Munroe, whose grounded approach drives the narrative more than the director himself. At its center, Suarez delivers a subtle performance as the older woman, on the verge of abandoning her life in Madrid to move in with her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti, “Talk to Her”). But a chance encounter with Bea (Michelle Jenner), the childhood friend of Julieta’s daughter Antia, changes everything: Bea mentions in passing that she ran into Antia in Lake Como, not realizing that it’s the first news of the woman’s whereabouts that Julieta has received in nearly 20 years. The update spurs her to resettle in her old home, not only picking up the recent breadcrumbs but reexamining her traumatic past. Cue the flashback.
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It’s here that “Julieta” heads into steadier Almodovarian territory, with Julieta recalling the memorable train ride where she met the good-natured Xoan (Daniel Grao). In the aftermath of a sudden event, the pair are drawn together for passionate night as the train speeds along. As Almodovar’s camera watches the pair go at it in the reflection of a window, “Juliet” begins to generate the mixture of eroticism and intrigue one expects from this sensual filmmaker. From there, however, it slows into a pedestrian romance in which the smitten Julieta shows up at Xoan’s house, lures him away from a former flame, and raises a family with him.
Years fly by, and a major tragedy interrupts the family’s steady existence while Antia (Priscilla Delgado) is away. And then, just like that, Antia vanishes again with no explanation to her mother, who’s forced to cope with the possibility that she was so absorbed in her own problems that they blinded her to those facing her closest relative. This somber revelation, carried out over the course of a delicate montage encompassing three years, provides “Julieta” with its central concern. Yet despite performances that resonate on their own, “Julieta” maintains an oddly listless quality no matter how much progress the character makes in her investigation. Even a third-act revelation that upends Julieta’s previous understanding of her daughter’s private life offers little in the way of emotional depth. The details are all there, but Almodovar does little to spice them up.
As mystery flits in and out of the story, “Julieta” remains an inoffensively well-acted melodrama with plenty of intelligent observations about mid-life regrets and obsessions. However, it never finds a cohesive center, instead simply plodding forward on a trajectory that lacks enough zest to justify the level of interest this world-class filmmaker brings each time at bat. It’s one thing to make a minor, accomplished work after focusing on grander statements, but “Julieta” mainly disappoints because it feels like the kind of straightforward, unadventurous drama that the filmmaker generally excels at reinventing through his own peculiar vision. This time, he plays it too safe.
“Julieta” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.