Imagine if Hitchcock had decided in the late '50s that he was tired of crime and murder and wanted to make the kind of romantic melodramas Douglas Sirk was turning out at the time. That's the mood of Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta, a return to dramatic form after the horror-driven misstep of The Skin I Live In and the major stumble of I'm So Excited! Based on three stories by Alice Munro, Julieta looks at longing and absence through the eyes of its troubled heroine, played at two different ages by Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte.
As the film begins, Julieta is preparing to move to Portugal with her lover, Lorenzo, when she runs into a young woman, the former childhood friend of her daughter Antía. For Julieta, who hasn't hadn't had any contact with Antía for more than a decade, the chance encounter launches a flood of memories. In flashbacks, Julieta recalls her past, from the night Antía was conceived to her efforts to rebuild her life after her daughter abandoned her. It's a complicated story of sudden deaths, subtle coincidences and simple misunderstandings, and Almodóvar has turned it into a wry but perfectly constructed puzzle with a curious but satisfying conclusion.
As in the director's previous films about women on the verge, there is a kind of elegance here, a sense of grace that allows his female leads (both Suárez and Ugarte are excellent) to seem realistically contemporary while also sustaining the melodramatic sense of tragedy that defined the Sirkian heroines of the past. What makes Almodóvar's best films work (and this is his best since 2006's Solver) is that he's not interested in resurrecting an occasionally campy genre for the sake of nostalgia. Instead he strips away the campy elements to find the passion and humanity that made them work in the first place.