I don't imagine many fans of Alice Munro feel that her stories lack an injection of primary-coloured camp. Restraint and discipline are at the heart of the Canadian author's appeal. She is the laureate of quiet despair.
None of this really brings us to Pedro Almodóvar. The director’s aesthetic is bold, brave and unmistakable, but, unlike that of, say, Baz Luhrmann, it is not any sort of bully. With The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann dragged F Scott Fitzgerald into the orchestra pit and kicked his brains into bloodied pulp. Luhrmann grinds source material into submission, but Almodóvar cajoles, persuades and accommodates.
Adapted from a trio of Munro's stories – Chance, Soon and Silence – Julieta looks very much like a Pedro joint. His regular collaborator Alberto Iglesias delivers an urgent score that retains the expected flavours of Bernard Hermann.
Jean-Claude Larrieu’s camera revels in the usual pillar-box reds and canary yellows. We are, nonetheless, reminded how much buttoned-up sadness there has always been in the director’s work. Maybe, Munro and Almodóvar really are a match made in narrative heaven.
The framing drama finds Emma Suarez playing the titular academic in contemporary Madrid.
On the eve of a trip to Portugal, she meets a friend of her daughter and elects to abandon her journey and return to her old apartment building. We drift back to the 1980s and find Julieta, now played by Adriana Ugarte, meeting two men on a train journey.
Fleeing the first, after an awkward encounter, she runs across a handsome fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao) with whom she forges an emotional connection.
Some time later, Julieta encounters Xoan on the day after his wife’s funeral – she has been in a coma – and, after some faffing, becomes engaged to him.
From there, the story dips and swoops towards interesting by-waters and less arresting asides. She visits her parents’ home and discovers that her dad is having an affair. Eventually, Julieta and family are compelled to move back to Madrid. We learn that Julieta’s daughter went missing and we wonder why.
Not for the first time, Almodóvar employs Hitchcockian grammar to tell a tale that never quite becomes a suspense.
Dressing down to shocking effect, Rossy de Palma, the film-maker’s most frequent muse, will remind a few of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. There is also something of The Ghost and Mrs Muir to the seaside retreat where – Iglesias’s chords echoing those of Hermann in the Joe Mankiewicz film – Julieta first settles down with Xoan.
Were we to have encountered Julieta without ever having seen another Almodóvar film, then it may have come across as a masterpiece. Nobody else is so clever at using high artifice to engage with pure emotions.
The coup employed to shift between Ugarte and Suarez (who are far from the spit of one another) knocks the viewer back while getting at a commonplace sadness that Munro would surely appreciate. His taste for layering tension within everyday situations continues to be a source of wonder.
For all that, Julieta doesn’t exactly stand out in the Almodóvar canon. It is a vast improvement on the recent, haywire I’m So Excited. But it has neither the mad flourish of a High Heels nor the emotional purchase of a Volver. If we were employing the Hitchcock scale then we might place it in the region of The Trouble with Harry or I Confess.
Fair enough. Originally intended as his first film in English, Julieta confirms that the motor is still ticking over very smoothly. There is every possibility that it could kick into top gear on its next dash down the corniche.