The films of Pedro Almodóvar always draw out the oft-melodramatic complexities of everyday existence, especially for the multi-faceted female characters that drive the narratives. In Julieta, Almodóvar crafts perhaps his most straight-forward story, shorn of many of the melodramatic flourishes and plot twists that so often permeate his films, yet nonetheless powerful and provocative.
Based on three short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta opens with Julieta (Emma Suárez), a middle-aged woman living in Madrid and preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). A chance encounter with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) results in Julieta learning the location of her estranged daughter Antía (Blanca Parés). Suddenly, Julieta no longer wants to leave Madrid. She breaks it off with Lorenzo and returns to her old apartment, where she begins to compose a long narrative in a series of journals, addressed to her daughter.
The film then moves back in time, transforming the first Julieta into a younger version of herself (Adriana Ugarte). She recounts her first meeting with her eventual lover Xoan (Daniel Grao), the birth of Antía, and the many permutations of their lives that eventually led to Antía’s disappearance.
This narrative of combined joy and guilt makes up the bulk of the film, weaving together various themes into a story both mythic and deeply personal. Early on, Julieta blames herself for a man’s suicide after she ignores his attempts at conversation – and while she’s reassured that his death is not her fault, it is nonetheless an incident that haunts both her and the film.
Julieta’s experience of guilt – guilt for abandoning her mother, guilt for hurting her husband, guilt for failing her daughter – makes up the focal point around which other events and thematics swirl. The film does not treat this guilt as religious or spiritual, however – aside from a late reveal, Julieta remains stolidly secular in its outlook. But the secular depiction of guilt is one unique in my experience, and gives the film a humanist dimension.
As with many of Almodóvar’s movies, Julieta is about women – and the experience of guilt, in this context, is a profoundly female one. Julieta’s guilt is tied to another theme of women bearing responsibility for male behavior. As the film develops, this element expands to the rest of the female characters, all of who bear some burden of guilt tied to the (absent) men in their lives. The focus on women means that the men are largely ciphers, functions of the female narrative that explores the guilt and burdens of femininity through an otherwise individual story. The most profound and important relationships are between women – Julieta and Antía, Julieta and her friend Ava (Inma Cuesta), Antía and Beatriz – and the most damaging are between women and men, as the women internalize the burden of guilt.
This burden appears most clearly on the face of Suárez, who plays the older Julieta, subdued and haunted by her past longings. It’s always a challenge for a film to depict a single character at two different stages of her life, but Suárez and Ugarte create continuity between their two Julietas that convinces. The naïve optimism of the younger Julieta slowly begins to give way to the depression of the older, yet neither become caricatures, manipulated by their experiences. They are thoroughly the same person.
For those students of Almodóvar’s work, this film will be at once recognizable and, perhaps, a bit more mainstream than some of his previous and more exuberant efforts. It still bears the director’s hallmark style, including the presences of Dario Grandinetti and Rossy de Palma, both of whom come from Almodóvar’s regular stable of actors. But the color palette is more subdued, lacking the bursts of color that so characterize films like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and even Volver.
While there is sex and nudity here, these are also subdued, confined to one or two scenes and otherwise left to the imagination. Yet, this subduing of Almodóvar’s regular cinematic tendencies feeds into the filmmaker’s evident desire to move away from melodrama and comedic flourishes for Julieta, crafting a more intimate tale than he has ever yet told.
Julieta was originally intended to be Almodóvar’s first English language film. While that might have been interesting to see, I must admit that I’m glad he settled back into making it Spain. There is something both simple and profound within it, something new for the director that still draws on his old styles and thematics. It feels timeless, undated, a mature examination of femininity and guilt. Julieta is a rich, exquisite return to form for Almodóvar.
Julieta is a timeless and mature examination of femininity and guilt that marks a return to form for director Pedro Almodóvar.