Though one of the first festivals of the calendar year, Palm Springs International Film Festival is actually the final note of the previous year in film, coming right before award season and in the slump of January new releases. This poses something of a challenge for critics in attendance, asthe offerings at the festival in this desert town have largely already been covered, and we live in a time when editors and publications demand first takes faster than any competitors.Yet, taken from another perspective, the timing of the Palm Springs can also offer a rarity in film criticism: reflection.
It’s not talked about enough that in the crunch of deadlines is the fact that speed doesn’t always produce the best results. That snap decisions, while not always wrong, can sometimes be flawed, superficial, or even a product of fatigue. And as being right (or at the bare minimum just having an opinion) has increasingly become the core of so much criticism, the art of changing one’s mind isn’t given nearly enough page space—despite it being a fact of an interesting intellectual life.
As such, while many of the films at the fest had already been debated, won prizes, or were at the time vying for an Oscar slot, thinking about what to write about was frankly liberating. Well curated and well attended, the festival offered a chance to think about what trends had appeared over the course or the year, which films had risen to the top and, more importantly, why. As this was the first time I had the opportunity to attend Palm Springs, this was a new idea concept.
In this more liberating environment, I found myself delighted at the chance to revisit Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, a tale of a mother’s quest to find her long lost daughter, based on short stories by the incomparable Alice Munro. I first missed the film at Cannes, where it premiered, but it was at this moment that film began to enter into conversations. In my circles, it intriguingly generated equal parts derision and praise — and more intriguingly, all from people whose opinions I deeply value. Life and work got in the way, and it wasn’t until months later that I could finally see the film in theatres. Alone in the dark I quietly cried at the film’s heartbreaking narrative and basked in its vibrant composition (and coveted after those perfect Céline sunglasses). At the same time, a sort of time travel took place: I was also brought back to the moments I’d had with friends who told me about the film, and even to reading Munro. In watching the film, I was engaging with both the present and past.
Seeing the film again, what I remained struck by were two scenes in particular: one, of an older Julieta (Emma Suárez) sitting among her unpacked boxes in a new apartment; at her feet one is marked: “Fragil.” A cynical viewer might dismiss this as a heavy-handed moment, but then when has melodrama, the realm of Almodóvar, ever been subdued? In this case, the brilliance comes not from pointing to Julieta’s mental state (which is already deftly conveyed by Suárez in her posture that slopes under a Sisyphean burden and sunken eyes) but rather in explicitly naming it. Fragility is a quality that rarely comes with positive associations, more often than not with shame. But in Julieta’s story, it is precisely her fragility that allows her to continue to love and to hope. Her fragility is what means she doesn’t become hardened to the world, despite its cruelties.
This scene plays with anther when a young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), in close-up, kisses the fresh heart tattoo of her lover and the father of her child. His skin is still raw, making the moment resonate with both sensuality and pain. It is this dynamic that captures the core of what it is to love: to risk being hurt to achieve tenderness. What ultimately ties the scenes is that in both fragility isn’t weakness but a radical opening up to the world, to love, and to others’ humanity. This is what will help the film endure beyond any festival cycle or award season.
© FIPRESCI 2017