A Monster Calls
“I know everything about you. The truth that you hide.”
Brooding, sentimental and utterly charming
I think I’ve only given five stars twice this year. This will now be the third as ‘Julieta‘ is unquestionably a five star movie. The entire film has an air of intrigue which smothers the viewer and draws them into a grief-tainted realm of love and loss. There’s much brooding meditation on universal themes such as fate and guilt – how yearning and regret can torture generations.
Julieta (Suárez) is about to move away from Madrid to Portugal with Lorenzo (Grandinetti). When she goes on her final errands she has a chance encounter with Beatriz (Jenner) who was the childhood best friend of Julieta’s daughter Antia. Beatriz tells Julieta about how she had bumped into Antia the week prior, about how well she was looking and how she meet Antia’s children. It’s a casual encounter and yet it forces Julieta to face her past. She tells Lorenzo that she will not be moving to Portugal with him but she doesn’t tell him the reason – that she needs to confront the events that led up to the decades-long estrangement of her and her daughter.
One of the film’s great successes it how it instantaneously hooks the viewer in whilst revelling very little. We can observe much about Julieta and her relationship with Lorenzo – we see how happy and doubt free she appears to be about the move- and how this shifts entirely by to what would appear to bystanders as smalltalk-laden chance encounter. We witness how her moving forward with her life is swiftly halted as she is ejected back into her past. Not only is she inevitably forced back to the past mentally and emotionally, she then returns to living in the apartment block she lived in with Antia in the hope of manifesting ghosts of her past into present figures. The letter she then begins to write to Antia serves as the frame of the story, the letter starts at the beginning and we are then placed their – in the 1980s with a twenty-something Julieta played by a different actress (Ugarte).
What follows could then be categorised as a lengthy flashback and yet it doesn’t quite fit nor feel like that. Assigning that label makes it sound like a laborious or arduous watch – it wholeheartedly isn’t. We, the viewer, live the memories just as Julieta is reliving them. We follow Julieta as she meets Antia’s father Xoan (Grao), her relationship with him, Antia’s birth and the seemingly fated separation that occurs with both of them. Julieta is a specialist in Classics and an air of Greek mythology lingers over the events – a prevailing sense of tragedy and predestiny, decision and consequence, fate and regret.
As we face in our own lives some of the events in Julieta’s life come as a quick and devastating surprise whilst others are drawn out, almost suffocating in their inevitability. Both Ugarte and Suárez are truly excellent in their joint role – each providing so much depth to Julita, each equally and superbly moving as they endure unresolved personal heartbreak. This, of course, would not be possible were it not for the master behind the camera. Almodóvar reminds us, were it needed, that he is one of cinema’s greatest living directors. He tells the story in a way that is both fractured yet whole- just like Julieta – muted yet melodramatic. Many moments within the film are gasp-inducing in their blend of beauty and tragedy, but none more so than the switch from younger to older Julieta. It’s a tradition that is the epitome of seamless yet utterly shattering.
Extraordinarily stylish on the eye, food for your soul, heartbreaking yet heart-mending. Extraordinary.
Cast: Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez, Michelle Jenner, Inma Cuesta, Daniel Grao, Darío Grandinetti.
Country: Spain Year: 2016 Run time: 99 Minutes
Julieta is in UK cinemas now.
Louder Than Bombs
What happens to a bomb that doesn’t explode?
My response to this film is surprisingly (well it would be to my past self) problematic. If I had reviewed it soon after watching yesterday I would have been rather damning of the film. Now, with roughly 28 hours worth of distance from seeing it, I feel slightly warmer towards it. (Only a few degrees mind – let’s not go crazy). With a level of retrospect I can admire the ideas and ambition of the film, something which I wouldn’t have been able to do initially after watching. However, whilst I may feel softer towards it I am still not a fan and think the film is largely unsuccessful it what it wants to achieve.
Three years ago famous war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) died in what most believed was a car accident. Now, as a museum retrospective of her life and works is fast approaching, her close friend is about to write an article about her in the New York Times and as he advises her widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) he will mention in the article the fact that her death was most likely suicide. Gene must now find a way of telling his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) the truth before he finds out through other means. An opportunity to do so arrives when eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg leaves his wife and newborn daughter to come home and help look through his mother’s work space to find photos for the retrospective. Whilst home Jonah must find a way of coming to terms with the past in the form of ex-girlfriend, his brother’s difficult present and how his future role as a father may be shaped by his relationship with his own.
It’s interesting that through writing the above plot summary I found myself again warmly engaging with the key ideas of the film. All of us have been touched by some sense of loss and each of us will handle the grief in different ways – some may mentally stay in the past with that person whilst others may push such thoughts aside and stay primarily focused on the present and future.
All of the actors do a fine job in subtly portraying grief. Byrne’s father trying to do the right thing for his two boys whilst watching his relationships with both fade away truly pulls at the heartstrings and occasionally at the bone. Druid plays the difficult emotionally stunted teen finely and somewhat reflecting the universal horror of adolescence. As difficult as my audience-actor relationship is with Eisenberg (forgiveness for his version of Lex Luthor is still far far away) but at times I did appreciate his character Jonah. I can say quite honestly that in the film’s opening sequence I even enjoyed watching him.
But it’s Huppert’s grief that is perhaps the most visceral, even though it is she that is being grieved by the family she left behind. It is a roughly two minute sequence about halfway through the film that really demonstrates this. The camera just focuses on her face in close-up for two minutes. For those two minutes nothing else happens. But as we know her character and we know the emotional battles she suffered (between her art and being a mother/wife) we read the metaphorical scars on her face. We look into her eyes and see the utter despair. We look behind her mask in a way we either chose or are unable to do with each other in real life.
All of this being said I think these ideas are stunted by execution. Though the pontification and using on the nature of grief is extraordinary and truly applaudable, either through intention or accident we are unable to connect with any of the characters – all are pretty unlikeable on various levels and for various reasons. It’s this aspect of the film that will and has been truly dividing audiences. Perhaps it is intention – that grief cannot and should not be sugarcoated, sometimes it will bring out the worst in each of us. However I am in the camp that views this as a flaw and something that prevents me from truly connecting with the film.
Whilst I well and truly admire the film’s sentiments and ideas by borderline disdain for it’s characters stops me from truly appreciating its merits. The fact the film takes a rather poetic storytelling approach, of drifting between moments, of days being indefinable, of present day being interchangeable with memory, did was not cohesive enough for me. In some ways I write this paragraph with a degree of apology, as someone who lost a relative (my uncle) in June and will soon be facing the prospect of that first anniversary without him. Sometimes I reflect on whether I am grieving ‘properly’, if I am approaching my grief ‘healthily’ and if I am ‘normal’ in my response. The film carefully weaves these ideas into it’s narrative but somewhat abandons them in favour of artistic statement and style.
Whilst full of poignant moments the film is ultimately too cold and reserved to provide the cathartic intimacy it appears to wish to provide.