Julieta ★★★½

[7]

One of the year's surprises. Almodóvar is a director with whom I've never had any serious problem, but it's been a long time since he made anything for which I felt I could offer a full-throated endorsement. There are several key elements at work here, but it seems that the binding agent is Alice Munro, whose short fiction Pedro adapted into his most sensitive, well-constructed script since Volver ten years ago.

Munro's subtlety, her way of crafting human interaction even at its crisis points as a kind of delicate negotiation of sensitivities - it's a terrible cliché to align this with the Canadian national character, but it does pertain to a particular strain of English-Canadian WASP repression, a fundamental self-protection that mistakes itself for altrusism. Almodóvar not only exhibited good taste by taking Munro on, but displays a remarkable artistic self-awareness, recognizing that his tendency toward outsized gestures might be productively tamped down. (Note the dominance on the soundtrack of the muted trumpet, a sonic analog for the film's overall formal attitude.)

In this regard, Julieta is a quiet melodrama, its story of a woman struggling with the loss of her daughter continually filtered through the words of others, through glances both sympathetic and accusatory, and above all, the written word. Letters are the primary tokens of exchange in this film, old fashioned in their tangibility, a logical conduit for the palpable feelings they inevitably provoke.

When young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) and future lover Xoan (Daniel Grao) look out the window of a train and spot a 14-point buck staring at them from the snow, it is clear that Pedro is situating us in Douglas Sirk territory. This is a way to consider the director's trademark chromatic design schemes, which are unusually jarring here. Bright crimsons and midnight blues predominate, but Almodóvar carefully offsets them with more placid period colors, like avocado and taupe.

In this regard, Pedro has turned his own trademark maneuvers into spikes of affect, deployed like staccato notes amidst an overall sense of calm. After trying for so long to recapture his bad-boy bona fides, Almodóvar has definitively entered his Late Period. It looks good.