After three decades, Pedro Almodóvar remains among contemporary cinema’s key iconoclasts. A flamboyant stylist bursting with outsized empathy, he ushered the international queer movement into the mainstream with proudly gaudy excess, refining his trademark fixation on women over a career unlike any other. While stateside contemporaries like Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant lead with their brains, Almodóvar shoots from the hip with an out-and-proud carnival aesthetic.
That’s part of what makes his newest, Julieta, such a departure and return to form at the same time. It’s Like the director’s 2011 sci-fi infused The Skin I Live In, Julieta is melodrama masquerading as genre exercise. Conjuring something like rainbow-noir, Almodóvar punctuates the movie with shrieking strings and a thick layer of Hitchcockian dread. There’s a chance meeting on a train, a suspiciously locked door, and a outrageously malevolent housekeeper molded directly on Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers (Almodóvar mainstay Rossy de Palma and the movie’s sole indulgence in outright camp). While Almodóvar suggests a mystery of sorts—the story unfolds in extended, puzzle-piece flashback—the big payoffs are quotidian and human-scale, driven more by grief and longing than anything criminal.
At one point, a character notes the absurdity of the conceit by sardonically comparing the his situation to a Patricia Highsmith novel. Highsmith is most famous for Strangers on a Train and the Tom Ripley series, and Almodóvar stacks the movie with visual references to notable adaptations, including a breathtaking shot that channels the pervasive Mediterranean decadence of Purple Noon in a matter of a few seconds. In reality, the material is drawn from the vastly more interior work of Alice Munro, and the movie’s unlikely marriage of form and content is its most audacious maneuver. In that sense, Julieta feels like a companion to Haynes’s lushly earnest adaptation of Highsmith’s Carol. And like that movie, there’s the nagging sense that grounded restraint isn’t this filmmaker’s natural register. But even without Almodóvar’s signature bite, it’s as warm, ambitious, and hopeful as any of the director’s recent masterworks. If it doesn’t reach the schlocky depths or the emotional heights of, say, Talk to Her, that’s because few movies can. Even in a minor-key, Almodóvar struts with effortlessly seductive brio.
Julieta. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Starring Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, and Daniel Grao. In Spanish with English subtitles. Opens in Kansas City February 3, 2017.