Spanish provocateur returns with a surprisingly low-key melodrama about familial guilt
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao
There are plenty of people out there for whom the words “un film de Almodóvar” are just cause for celebration. After a couple of his more outrageous outings—2011’s sci-fi shocker The Skin I Live In and 2013’s campy comedy I’m So Excited!—Almodóvar finds himself drifting back to familiar territory with the low-key drama Julieta. The Spanish stylist has frequently flip-flopped between colorful comedy and ... well, equally colorful melodrama. Julieta belongs in the latter camp (alongside such films as Talk To Her, Live Flesh, All About My Mother and The Flower of My Secret) rather than the former (which includes Labyrinth of Passion, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Kika). Though it ranks as one of Almodóvar’s smallest, most intimate films, it’s still a reason for fans to sit up and take notice.
The film’s plot is actually based (very loosely, it should be noted) on three short stories by Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro: “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence.” It all centers around the titular Julieta (Emma Suárez, who starred in a number of films for Almodóvar’s fellow Spaniard Julio Médem, including Vacas, The Red Squirrel and Earth). At a somewhat belated age, Julieta has decided to get married and run off to Portugal. But at the last minute, the late-fiftysomething gets fleeting, secondhand word of her long-estranged daughter, Antía. Dumping her flummoxed fiancé, Julieta moves back into her old Madrid apartment, hoping that Antía will see fit to contact her.
With no real clue how to go about finding her daughter (other than the vague info that she’s somewhere in Switzerland and has three children), Julieta pens a long, explicatory letter detailing her life story and the events that led to the estrangement between mother and daughter. This extended flashback forms the bulk of Julieta.
As a 25-year-old schoolteacher (played in flashback by well-known Spanish TV star Adriana Ugarte), Julieta meets Antía’s father on a train. Xoan (Daniel Grao) is a rugged young fisherman whose wife has been in a long-term coma (a plot device used before in 2002’s Talk To Her). Young, good-looking and lonely, Julieta and Xoan make love on the train. The fleeting encounter leads to Julieta getting pregnant. She goes looking for Xoan, and in a nice bit of coincidence, shows up on his doorstep the day after his wife’s funeral. Julieta and Xoan raise their daughter Antía in a beautiful seaside village where she basks in the love of her adoring mother and father. But tragedy eventually visits the young family.
Almodóvar loves a mystery. Occasionally, he goes with the standard crime-based ones. But more often than not, he’s satisfied with mysteries of a much more domestic type. What skeletons do seemingly ordinary people have in their closets, and what do those hidden secrets cause them to do? Julieta is more or less a slow unfolding of the unknown circumstances that led to Julieta and her daughter not speaking to one another for 20 years. And although that might not be as intriguing as the mystery of, say, who killed Ms. Scarlet in the conservatory with the knife, Almodóvar knows how to milk seemingly pedestrian situations for serious intrigue. He’s fascinated by people, and Julieta is one of his more carefully studied character sketches.
Almodóvar has always leaned toward the female-centric melodramas of Golden Age Hollywood kings George Cukor and Douglas Sirk. Here he more or less achieves that tone with little stylistic embellishment. This is certainly one of his most narratively conventional films. (Lest you lose sight of the fact that this is a Pedro Almodóvar film, however, there are plenty of bright, primary colors to go around and just a touch of crazy wallpaper.) As with a lot of films on the man’s resume, this one touches on issues of regret, redemption and forgiveness. At one point one of the characters chides young Julieta for pursuing a career. “The job of a mother is to take care of her family,” she’s informed. Here, the advice is aimed less at creating old-fashioned, stay-at-home moms and more geared toward reminding folks to keep an eye on the prize. The various distractions of life, love and career cause several people here to lose sight of what is most important to them. You might regret losing a job or a fondly remembered apartment. But losing a family member—to death or neglect or misunderstanding—is something that will haunt you for the rest of your life. By checking in on its protagonist at age 20, age 40 and right around age 60, Julieta reminds us—in word and deed—that life is a ticking clock and that certain issues need to be addressed, lest they eat up our short time on Earth. Some may find it an unadventurous outing for a filmmaker who gave us lesbian punk rockers, nuns on LSD, nymphomaniac pop stars, gay Islamic terrorists, transsexual prostitutes, kidnapped porn stars, Antonio Banderas and more op art wallpaper than you’d see at an Andy Warhol loft party. Still, Julieta serves well as a simple, stripped-down statement of purpose from one of the international film scene’s most consistently controversial auteurs.