Almodovar, monarch of the Spanish cinema for some thirty years, has never won the coveted Palme D’Or at Cannes but keeps on trying. Sadly, it is unlikely that his luck will change with Julieta, his new film. It displays much of his flamboyant art, which includes beautiful design and wonderfuL colour schemes. But it all seems in a minor key as old Julieta (Emma Suarez) suddenly finds out that her long-missing daughter (Blanca Pares) is not dead but around where she lives, holidaying with her three grandchildren.
The shock is considerable and Julieta settles down to write a long letter to her daughter tellingly her about her storm-tossed life by way of explanation. We see that life in flashback, with Adriana Uguarte playing her younger self. Eventually, all is well but not until the film has filled up with some of Almodovar’s neatest tricks. Taken from not one but three stories by Alice Munro, the film hasn’t the sometimes frantic and always eccentric melodrama of something like Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It is calmer and perhaps more thoughtful about the disappointments of life.
Perhaps those who find his former work puzzling will find this more straightforward storytelling more congenial. But somehow something is lost. The panache is not quite there, so a pleasant film just misses the mark of so, etching exceptional.
The Dardennes Brothers from Belgium have won the Palme D’Or twice but it is likely to be third time unlucky with The Unknown Girl, which lacks the brothers usual social realist fluency and their wonderful heart on sleeve feeling for society’s drop-outs.
A young doctor from Liege, dedicated to helping such people, fails to answer her clinic’s door to a young African woman who is later found dead. Stricken with guilt, she desperately tries to discover who the young woman was and what happened to her. The police take up the case but she won’t stop interfering, and the film becomes almost a Hitchcockian detective mystery.
One of its troubles is the playing of Adele Haenel as the doctor which seems stymied by a screenplay that is duller than it need be. The other is the slightly far-fetched thrust of the storyline which often lacks veracity. There are as usual some fine moments in the film, such as the doctor’s treatment of a young cancer patient and her determination to do what’s right for all her patients. But, as someone has rather cynically opined The Unknown Girl looks a bit like a good chapter in the Casualty series. And the Dardennes Brothers have done much better than that. They are wonderful film-makers but perhaps even they should be very careful about their next production.