By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Reviews of Julieta and Personal Shopper
Pedro Almodóvar, directing his 21st feature, is again riding a feminine carousel. Julieta has Julieta doubled. The very attractive, middle-aging woman of Madrid is played with subtle verve of nerves by Emma Suárez. In her written (and flashbacked) memories her younger self is played by Adriana Ugarte as a sensitive blond bombshell who loves the Greek classics. Ugarte is probably the Spanish master’s best wow since Penélope Cruz. And then there is Julieta’s daughter Antia, played as child and teen by several engaging girls. And the flinty housekeeper acted by Rossy de Palma, Pedro’s Gothic gargoyle of Spanish pride (no man of La Mancha can stand against her).
Once again, los hombres are harem accessories. Pedro, famously gay, displays the buff appeal of Daniel Grao as Xoan, the stud fisherman (hints of Ulysses) who fathered Antia. On the side Xoan pleasures Ava (Inma Cuesta), a strong, sexy sculptress of Greco-macho nudes. Gentlemanly Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) comforts the mature, often depressed Julieta. In el mundo de Pedro the males are on hand mainly to pay attention, cast some seed and pick up broken crockery. It’s the females, singly, in pairs, in triads, in generations, who cause and inhabit the Iberian weather of feelings. Soap opera? If so, closer to opera than soap.
Almodóvar compacted three short stories of Alice Munro, now Hispanicized (it was once planned in English for Meryl Streep). In this seamless narrative people still write letters and notes, and emotions find the flamenco cadence of Castilian speech. The axis, of course, is Julieta, who surrenders her teaching dream for motherhood. Her idyll is upended not only by Xoan but willful daughter Antia. No point in spelling this out, though “spoilers” mean little when a director makes each scene pregnant from the last, giving birth to the next. Hurt and guilt become Julieta’s new, Homeric sea, churned less by Catholicism than tides of desire and fidelity, though there is a holy trinity moment of young Julieta with her baby and her aging mother.
Buffs will relish the surrealism of a stag, running alongside a train, and doesn’t a suicidal passenger echo Luis Buñuel’s great actor Fernando Rey? In a Hitchcock overlay, the stars playing Julieta recall the two sides of Kim Novak in Vertigo, with Ugarte looking a lot like Novak’s “Madeleine.” Rich stuff, but less strategic than Almodóver’s fluency of moods and décor-in-depth (emphasis on red, blue and yellow). The crucial role of Antia could have used more development, but Julieta is Julieta. Having dreamed of ancient Greeks, she finds herself in a Spanish life suspended between tragedy and melodrama, consecrated to the compulsions of Pedro. In a word: Viva!
Personal ShopperKristen Stewart made a smart jump away from the Twilight Saga movies by playing a personal assistant in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). It is less smart to go from the artistic to the arty, as Stewart and Assayas have done with Personal Shopper. The slender, elegant actress plays Maureen, the American scootering round Paris as “personal shopper” of clothing and jewelry for a celebrity fashion totem, a woman of almost Trumpean shallowness. Maureen is told to never wear the garments. Of course she does, covertly. On this flimsy hanger, Assayas suspends two vapid attempts at mystery.
The vaguely psychic Maureen sleuths the ghost of her twin brother, which leads to a spooky old house where (she notes) a phantom “vomits ectoplasm.” And Maureen is stalked by a man, often through creepy texting, which leads to a grisly murder (not hers). The pieces scarcely connect, unless you wish to be pious about auteurist intentions. Even when you thicken the gravy with Stewart half-nude (twice), a Victor Hugo séance, and Marlene Dietrich singing in Angst Deutsch, you’re still stuck with a meatloaf of murk. It took the mise-en-scène prize at Cannes, which means the elegant gravy can’t save the under-cooked meat.
SALAD (A List)The Ten Best Almodóver Movies (with stars and year):
Volver (con Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, 2006), All About My Mother (con Marisa Paredes, Cecilia Roth, Penélope Cruz, 1999), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (con Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma, 1988), Talk to Her (con Javier Cámara, Roserio Flores, 2002), Julieta (con Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, 2016), Broken Embraces (con Penélope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, 2009), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (con Victoria Abril, Antonio Banderas, 1990). Live Flesh (con Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Liberto Rabal, 1997), Law of Desire (con Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, 1987) and Kika (con Verónica Forqué, Peter Coyote, Victoria Abril, 1993).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Citizen Welles tried to diet his grand bulk in later years, but the gourmand in him was never silent. As when, lunching, he extolled the kiwi: “It’s the greatest fruit in the universe! But it’s ruined by all the French chefs who cut it up into thin slices. You cannot tell what it tastes like unless you eat it in bulk. Then it is marvelous, and it has the highest vitamin content of any fruit in the world.” (Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom, My Lunches With Orson.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)While not a flop, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was not the big 1948 hit its later legend implied: “Women largely ruled the box office and Treasure lacked wide appeal. Males mostly took it as an odd, exotic Western (swell bandits, not enough horses and gunplay). Ballyhoo included theater managers staging ‘treasure hunts’ for tickets, with fake gold bars on display under armed guard. One puff shot showed Bogart talking into the ear of a burro. Fortunately, the film was spared its ‘love song’ by Dick Manning and Buddy Kaye: ‘For you are the treasure of Sierra Madre / And your love is the gold that I tenderly hold’.” (From the Humphrey Bogart / Treasure of the Sierra Madre chapter in my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, yours from Amazon, Nook or Kindle).
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) faces another colorful crisis in Volver (El Deseo/ Sony Pictures Classics, 2006; director Pedro Almodóver, cinematographer Ester García).
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