Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, Julieta begins with an ambush. Middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) is on the cusp of moving on with her life, preparing to move from Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti), when fate suddenly intervenes, and she’s pulled back into the past that she’d hoped to forget. A chance meeting with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her estranged daughter Antía, sends Julieta spiralling into a whirlpool of depressive reminiscence. Choosing to stay behind in Madrid, Julieta salvages and reconstructs a photo that she’d destroyed of herself with Antía, and resolves to write a journal, addressed to her daughter, in the vague hope of some sort of cathartic reconnection. “I’m going to tell you everything I wasn’t able to tell you,” she begins, “because you were a child, because it was too painful for me, or simply out of shame.”
Julieta, released back in 2016, marks a pivotal moment in the career of Almodóvar, the great, febrile, flamboyant Spanish auteur, who, over four decades of filmmaking, has carved out lurid aesthetics and female character archetypes that are so gloriously singular that they’ve now entered the cinematic lexicon in adjectival form: “Almodóvarian” — a towering touchstone of a word, by which pretenders are measured. The director’s early works of transgressive comedy, explosive statements of freedom from the repression of Francoist Spain, unambiguously announce his interests and intent — raw, unrefined, undisciplined carnivals of shock and scatology, totally fixated upon relationships between women, inspired by an assortment of trash from soap operas to John Waters, in which he saw more value than higher art. The 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown represents the culmination of this formative phase, the point at which the charming scattershot approach gives way to greater precision — still hectic, still garish, but now more technically sophisticated.
The 1999 film All About My Mother — a bona fide masterpiece — marks the beginning of Almodóvar’s most formally polished and most emotionally fertile era. The old vulgarity begins to take on new sweetness and wisdom, and the past begins to encroach upon the frisson of the present. Funnily enough, this period, which produced such sparkling dramas as Volver and Broken Embraces, also produced perhaps Almodóvar’s nastiest, most insane film ever, The Skin I Live In ; a mystery thriller infused with nauseating body horror, drawing upon the darkness of Georges Franju and Alfred Hitchcock. Trust such a consummate provocateur to throw such a destabilising sucker punch.
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And now here we are, in another new age of Almodóvar — an age, it seems, that will likely be defined by sober reflection. The old master’s two most recent projects, Julieta and Pain and Glory, have indicated a quiet sort of stylistic revolution, an effort to temper those vulgar impulses that earned him his reputation as a great auteur in the first place. Pain and Glory dispenses entirely with that abrasive, outrageous, instantly recognisable Almodóvar energy, and leans instead into gentleness and gracefulness, smoothing out the rough edges. It’s a tranquil, ruminative, poignant film, filled with languorous ambles into memories, fears and regrets. It’s both a part of, and apart from, the director’s oeuvre — still Almodóvarian, not so much in an aesthetic or tonal sense, but in the sense that as the director whittles down his style, he burrows deeper into previously inaccessible areas of his psyche.
While Pain and Glory might be the more assured, well-rounded, fully-realised film of the two, Julieta is on some level the more fascinating—a conspicuously conflicted project, full of compelling contradictions. It goes without saying that watching Almodóvar in unmitigated command holds myriad delights, but Julieta finds him working in a very different mode that’s uniquely thrilling: here, he’s conceding ground, tying his creative sensibilities down in order to somehow better harmonise with the material with which he’s working.
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That material comes courtesy of Alice Munro, the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian writer, whose book of short stories, Runaway, gives Julieta its general architecture. If that sounds like a strange, even uncomfortable artistic fit, that’s because it is. Munro’s prose is famous for being direct, unadorned, unfussy — a far cry from the showmanship and unpredictability of Almodóvar’s own writing and visuals. At the same time, the appeal of Munro to Almodóvar is obvious — the three stories from which the director takes inspiration for his film, “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” about a woman who falls in love with a stranger on a train, and then suffers the pain of alienation when she’s deserted by their daughter, are ripe with the sort of knotty, thorny maternal and intergenerational dynamics from which he so consistently excavates emotional riches.
Julieta, then, involves a marriage between quite disparate artistic minds — a marriage in which Almodóvar largely surrenders campiness and comedy over to solemnity. That said, the director otherwise restrains himself in very specific ways that don’t necessarily vitiate his or Munro’s idiosyncrasies so much as they generate interesting frictions. The resulting film is enthrallingly slippery, oscillating between different wavelengths: it’s at once a straightforward drama (grounded by the simplified gravity of Munro), a characteristic Almodóvar melodrama (burning with the usual heightened passions and vivid palette) and a coiling, destiny-ridden noir (steeped in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock; Alberto Iglesias even scores the film in the style of Bernard Herrmann).
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Indeed, those sequences that are most heavily inspired by Highsmith and Hitchcock contain perhaps the film’s most formally precise and tonally cohesive compositions, sturdy and grounded, yet still full of elegance and flair. Julieta’s first meeting with Antía’s father Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a nocturnal train journey is replete with some of Almodóvar’s most stealthily ominous staging, every image complicated by added shades and layers. An intimate conversation is shot in a frame within a frame, entombing Julieta as she moves unsuspectingly through events that will eventually come to infect her entire existence. A ghostly fade from the older Julieta, played by Suárez, to the younger Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte, hints at the porousness of time, and the manner in which the past will hang over and haunt the present. Even the sex scene between Julieta and Xoan is captured with a sort of doubling effect, the reflection of the lovers in their carriage window rendering the encounter more spectral than sensual. And of course, the narrow linearity of the train, hurtling down the tracks, is portentous in itself — a locomotive emblem of predestination. And just in case you somehow still don’t get it, Almodóvar brings out the sledgehammer and has Julieta reading a book of Greek tragedy.
One of the great pleasures of watching any Almodóvar film, but especially Julieta, is studying its expressionistic textures, in which the director and his collaborators — production designer Antxón Gomez and costume designer Sonia Grande — embed so much of their storytelling. Xoan’s house by the sea, a space in which Julieta would love to belong, never quite feels like home, awash with cool blues and greys, as if coloured by the hostility of Marian the housekeeper (Rossy de Palma). The texture of glass, which frames the incipient ardour of Julieta and Xoan’s romance, comes back to frame its doom, as Julieta looks helplessly through a window at the violent storm that claims her lover’s life. Middle-aged Julieta’s pristine apartment, with its bleached walls, severe vertical lines and clinical furniture, exists as a sort of void in which history, and all of its pains, have been consciously obliterated. That history, though, creeps back in through the recurring fractured pattern that appears first in the past in the angular style of one of Antía’s drawings, and then reappears in the present in the strange geometry of Julieta’s bureau, in the anguished fissures of her shredded photograph and even in the very fabric of her dressing gown. Julieta’s words for her daughter merely reinforce what’s already stated in Almodóvar’s filmmaking: “Your absence fills my entire life and destroys it.”
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Of course, a film like Julieta still hinges upon the strength of its performers. After all, where would Almodóvar be without his chicas, the actresses who embody his multifaceted women? Ugarte animates the young, messy-haired, red-lipped Julieta with vivacity, carnality and intellectual sharpness, while Suárez infuses the older Julieta with tired, bruised dignity, beneath which stir years of torment. The scene in which the switch between the two actresses occurs is simple yet potent — Julieta steps into the bath as Ugarte, silently soaks in her despair, and then, after Antía dries her hair, surfaces from beneath the towel as Suárez, vulnerable, exhausted, weathered by irrevocable loss. It’s here, in this transition, that Almodóvar pivots from blunt drama to psychological incision, as he skilfully recontextualises the film into a study of the genetic transference of guilt. Julieta blames herself for the suicide of a passenger on the train, and passes that crippling yoke down to Antía, who ends up blaming herself for her father’s death at sea. A certain piece of Philip Larkin verse springs to mind: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”
If Almodóvar falters at all, it’s not because he doesn’t do enough, but because he overreaches — not in style, but in his powers of narrative compression. There’s a whole lot going on here — maybe too much for such a compact package. In particular, one detour from “Soon” involving a visit to Julieta’s parents, while loyal to Munro, feels unproductive in the context of Almodóvar’s reconstructed version. It’s not entirely dead weight — there’s definitely something to be said about the parallels between Julieta’s depression and her mother’s Alzheimer’s, between her father’s affair with his maid and Xoan’s affair with a sculptress — but these are thin, comparatively insubstantial threads in Almodóvar’s overall tapestry, and their elimination would probably benefit the film’s thematic agility. Still, it’s always thrilling to find a filmmaker doing too much, especially when so many don’t do anything at all. And anyway, Almodóvar would successfully go on to put a less-is-more attitude into practice on Pain and Glory, so in the end, it’s doubly thrilling to see a proven veteran in the process of mastering new strategies.
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Over the past decade or so, we’ve been fortunate enough to witness some of our most revered filmmakers pushing their work into bold new territories deep into their careers, swinging for the fences with the sort of ambition and abandon that you’d expect and hope to see — but so seldom do — from the supposed rising stars of the industry. We’ve seen Terrence Malick charging headlong into the melancholy of modernity with radical, amorphous streams of consciousness, and Jean-Luc Godard revolutionising film grammar all over again, exploiting new technologies in essayistic experiments. Abel Ferrara has grappled with his memories and anxieties in expressionistic meditations, and Steven Soderbergh has taken his iconoclasm to new levels with supple, distortional iPhone images. Almodóvar’s own revolution, beginning with Julieta, promises to be humbler, but no less satisfying or reinvigorating.