PHOTO: MANOLO PAVÓN
I remember my first encounter with Pedro Almodóvar, back when I was in college. I had read about Matador and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but I hadn’t tracked those films down yet — the realities of the pre-streaming age. I recall the attention paid to his fascination with high camp and hyper-styled melodrama, so when Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! premiered, I knew I couldn’t avoid him any longer; after all, I was already devoted to David Lynch.
And the film certainly didn’t disappoint. Antonio Banderas, an Almodóvar regular, played a former mental patient who tracks down and kidnaps his favorite porn star (Victoria Abril) in order to convince her to marry him. The film’s tagline: A love story…with strings attached, aimed to sensationalize and spark outrage, which it did in spades. There was a deeply intimate personal ritual in the bondage scenes, and Almodóvar made sure that the audience was engaged. But I found myself falling under the spell of a storyteller who never let the titillating spectacle overwhelm the underlying humanity of his characters.
Which makes his latest, Julieta, seem like a curious departure. The titular character (Emma Suárez) drifts comfortably through middle age in Madrid, as she and her lover Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) prepare to move to Portugal, until a chance encounter with a childhood friend (Michelle Jenner) of her estranged daughter Antia (Blanca Parés) forces Julieta to confront unresolved issues from her past.
Adapting stories from Alice Munro, Almodóvar reins in his natural stylistic tendencies, zeroing in on the careful rendering of Julieta’s personal history via a series of fully realized and lived-in flashbacks. The film appears constantly on the verge of leaping into the soapy abyss, but Almodóvar employs a rich and vibrant color palate, fashion and works of art as the perfect means of uniting the present Julieta with her younger self (Adriana Ugarte) in a satisfyingly mundane way. With a subtle and deft touch, Julieta illustrates how the senses can define character and memory. (Closes at Esquire Theatre Thursday, Feb. 9.) (R) Grade: B+