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'Julieta' is Pedro Almodovar's elegant, sad look at how to deal

A woman (Emma Suarez) reflects on the daughter that got away in the legend's latest.
Julieta

Adriana Ugarte plays the younger version of the troubled hero of Pedro Almodovar'sSony Pictures Classics

‘Julieta’
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Stars:
Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

When people talk Pedro Almodovar, they talk about his loud colors, his peerless insights into women, his sincere and unabashed love of old fashioned melodrama. But maybe his real gift is for structure. “Julieta” — like “The Skin I Live In,” “Bad Education” and “Talk to Her” — is a movie whose story doesn’t become fully clear until the movie’s nearly over. We might even spend much of his latest wondering where this handsomely made and delicately acted contraption is going, if anywhere at all. When we have our eureka moment late in, it’s no mere cheap plot twist; the structure is a sly and psychologically fascinating plunge into the art of self-deception. It makes you wonder what the Spanish firebrand would have done with “Memento.”

Suffice to say, we don’t want to give too much of “Julieta”’s game away. We first see our eponymous character in middle age, when she’s played by Emma Suarez. She seems happy and content; she’s packing up her apartment to move to Portugal with her very nice boyfriend (Dario Grandinetti). Nice boyfriends are always a sign that’s something’s amiss. Sure enough, Julieta runs into a woman she knew as a child, when she was friends with her daughter, Antia. We’re not 100 percent sure why, but this encounter rattles her. She ditches her boyfriend without explanation, jaunts over to Madrid and sends the film into an epic flashback to catch us, very gradually, up to speed.

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“Julieta” takes its sweet time getting to the closest thing it has to a big reveal. Mashing together three short stories from Alice Munro’s “Runaway,” it shows our hero as a young woman (played by Adriana Ugarte), who meets cute, sort of, with a hunky stranger on a train. He’s Xoan (Daniel Grao), and he will give her Antia, then suffer the kind of crazy tragedy that only happens in silly soap operas or genuinely great fiction. Then something even crazier, loopier will happen — not as insane as the hairpin turns in “Talk to Her” and “The Skin I Live In,” but arguably just as damaging.

Not that Almodovar is only ever about getting a rise out of the audience. He’s not goosing us for goosing’s sake. (He was kind of only doing that in “The Skin I Live In,” but the big revelation is so masterfully delayed that once you’ve figured it out, the feeling is pure euphoria. Everyone seems to “get it” at different times, and you could tell which ones did by sudden bursts of dark laughter.) Here, Almodovar uses a clever structure to get us inside a damaged head — inside someone who has chosen that living a lie was better than living the truth. We spend most of the film knowing that Antia is estranged from Julieta, but not why or how deep the fissure runs. We’re not sure how far mother, daughter or both have gone to sever ties. Julieta’s film-long flashback finds her not just catching the viewers up with the story so far, but slowly walking herself back to reality.

The results are a bit on the self-help therapy side of things, but it’s uncommonly insightful about how relationships, even those forged by blood, are like an addiction. And Almodovar is an assured enough filmmaker to make it work both in the moment — including a beautiful mid-film bit where Ugarte effectively passes the torch to Suarez — and as long con storytelling. He knows to engage viewers even when they’re not sure where he’s going, and he can even surprise us with the abrupt way it simply ends.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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