‘Julieta’ a successful experiment in nonlinear storytelling

Julieta is a blend of several genres. At times, it’s a road movie. Other times, it’s a tragedy. In the middle, it tackles romantic comedy. The narrative is unpredictable, but easy to follow. Images courtesy Warner Bros.

Steven James
@StevenLeeJames

Julieta puts melancholy, suspense and strange visuals at center stage. A group of talented actors play two generations of assholes who can’t look past their own issues.

After hearing news of her daughter’s whereabouts, Julieta Arcos (Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte) cancels moving to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo Gentile (Darío Grandinetti). Arcos a personal journal focusing on her daughter, Antía (Blanca Parés, Priscilla Delgado), who ran away 12 years earlier during a religious retreat. While writing in her journal, Julieta, who suffers from major depressive disorder, realizes how little she knew of her daughter, and that maybe her depression had alienated her. In a narrative alternating between past and present, Arcos comes to terms with the fact her daughter is no longer a part of her life and realizes why she left in the first place.

The best character in the movie is Marian (Rossy de Palma), Arcos’ housekeeper. She shames Arcos and her partner, Xoan (Daniel Grao) for their lust and immaturity, leading to some great comedic moments. She also resembles the Wicked Witch of the West, which adds to the comedy.

If done poorly, telling a nonlinear story can be a cheap method to make a film look more artistic than it truly is, but writer/director/producer Pedro Almodóvar and team use the non-chronological structure to their advantage by dropping subtle hints in the different time periods about character motivations and having the older and younger versions of Arcos parallel each other, from the way she stands to the way she smokes to the way she looks at people she loves.

Instead of using the non-chronological plot to achieve a goal in the main character’s journey, Julieta distinguishes itself from other nonlinear movies by showing the title character’s decline from happiness to depression. At the beginning of the film, she comes across as jovial. Throughout the 99-minute runtime, we slowly see that is not the case. Arcos’ increasing depression is her journey, and the audience experience is heightened with the nonlinear plot contrasting the emotions of her younger and older selves, with resolution coming from the one thing that could probably make her feel better.

Arcos, at first, is an empathetic character. She tries to not make the people around her miserable with her depression, but knows she does. The other characters gradually get pissed at her because they think she’s using her illness to wallow in self-pity, even though she has a serious disease and suffers tragedy in her life. Other characters are quick and ready to go, but Arcos needs time to adapt to things. This is made obvious with Suárez and Ugarte’s performances.

The characters wear strange clothes or have strange hairstyles to match their personalities. Julieta Arcos tends to wear regular clothes, except for her white, light gray and turquoise tennis shoes. This shows Julieta feels out of place in relation to the people around her. Beatriz wears dark, flamboyant clothes to match her demeanor, which goes from shy to unreserved.

Arcos’ transformation from a jovial, energetic woman to a brooding, exhausted one is fascinating to watch. Her decline into fatigue happens after the first major moment of tragedy, and gets worse as she and her daughter age. Antía Arcos grows up, but Julieta fails to be involved because of her developing depression and Antía’s growing independence. She clings onto her old, comfortable life as much as she can, and succeeds until one time when Antía and her best friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner, Sara Jiménez), help her dry her hair. They pull the towel up to reveal Julieta’s face, and we see an older, sadder human being than the one from a few moments ago.

I have conflicted feelings about the Julieta Arcos character. She is an intelligent and loving woman. She is also an empathetic character, especially when she suffers heartache from her running away. But, she easily falls for attractive men and behaves inappropriately in dealing with her missing daughter, including making throwing away Antía’s birthday cake an annual tradition. Funny, but not somebody I’d want to hang with.

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