Film of the week: Julieta

A woman’s life: Pedro Almodóvar spins a triptych of Alice Munro short stories into a sombre, supremely expressive reflection on love, tragedy and transformation.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Jonathan Romney
Updated:

One of the enduring pleasures of Pedro Almodóvar’s cinema is his mastery of narrative complexity: his films often seem to be generated by a set of completely disparate events and ideas from which he constructs narratives that are coherent but nevertheless tend to burst at the seams with their own sometimes narrowly contained dissonances and incongruities. Julieta is entirely characteristic of Almodóvar in the sheer density of elements, both narrative and symbolic, that it comprises: among them, the geographic diversity of the settings; a heroine, Julieta, played at different ages by two actresses; the chain of Julieta’s different homes; and symbolic ingredients that include a stag glimpsed at night from a train window, a lecture on Greek mythology and the statuettes of seated men with truncated limbs made by Julieta’s sculptor friend Ava.

The miracle of Julieta is that it feels as loose and multiple as the above suggests, yet at the same time very tight and unified. Among the film’s themes are the complexity and seeming diffuseness of a person’s life, and the hidden patterns created by the interaction of contingency and memory; as an academic specialising in Greek myth, Julieta is a highly qualified reader of the ‘novel’ of her existence.

The film is Almodóvar’s third literary adaptation, following the Ruth Rendell-inspired Live Flesh (1997) and The Skin I Live In (2011), based on Thierry Jonquet’s Tarantula. This time, however, the source is not a novel but three consecutive short stories from Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway. Although each Munro story stands alone and covers a separate episode and theme, cross-references make it clear that they can all be read as concerning the same woman, Juliet, at different periods. Munro’s three stories effectively provide all the material that Almodóvar dramatises here.

Julieta (2016)

Where the director has scope to make his film properly Almodóvarian is partly in knitting Munro’s three vignettes into a single narrative of characteristic intricacy; and partly in imposing his unmistakable stylistic signature, with all the signals of Spanishness that entails.

Originally planned as his first English-language film, Julieta has been transplanted from the original Canadian settings to Madrid, Galicia, the Pyrenees and elsewhere. The film is steeped in overtly foregrounded style, right from the image seen in the opening credits: draped red fabric that pulses like a human heart but turns out to be Julieta’s dress. Throughout, the expressionistic exuberance that we associate with the Almodóvar look is rooted firmly in a realistic everyday context by Antxón Gómez’s production design and Sonia Grande’s costumes: we are constantly shown the autonomous expressive power of, say, a certain wallpaper pattern, shelves of Galician pottery, the retro dress worn by Julieta’s elderly mother. There is also the Klimt-style dressing gown that Julieta wears in one of her solitary moments, its vividness strikingly clashing with her melancholy, and perhaps itself helping to save her from outright despair.

Julieta (2016)

This tantalisingly open-ended film is Almodóvar’s most sombre to date: it is to his last feature, 2013’s airline farce I’m So Excited!, as Interiors (1978) was to Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971). Julieta is overtly serious in its concern with loss and the mature retrospective contemplation of life’s complexity, its visual energy contrasting strongly with its emotional severity and the almost total absence of either comedy or manifest narrative playfulness (the only echo of the famed Almodóvar ‘camp’ is a glimpse of one character’s fashionista friends). Where he is often associated with melodrama, in Julieta Almodóvar has professed to be creating ‘pure drama’, free of excess or fancy: hence the part played by classical mythology, which young Julieta teaches, and which reinforces the transcendental resonances of her own experiences.

Above all, Julieta is a study in duality. It involves, for example, two young women both guilt-stricken at their presumed responsibility for a death (a train suicide in Julieta’s case; in the case of her daughter Antía, the drowning of her father) and two relationships involving another woman in the frame (Ava’s double is the young north African mistress of Julieta’s father). The doubling begins with the fact that the heroine is played by two different actresses. The young Julieta, a vital, intellectually energetic woman open to all that life can offer her, is played by Adriana Ugarte and visually presented in a heightened manner. She’s first seen in bright-blue stockings and leather miniskirt, with a shock of blonde hair, as if she’s stepped out of a mid-80s Almodóvar comedy – or as if she were the older Julieta’s stylised version of her remembered self.

Julieta (2016)

The Julieta of the framing narrative is played with a deeply poignant careworn dignity by Emma Suárez, whom UK audiences may remember as an angelic ingénue in such Julio Medem films as Tierra (1996). Twenty years on, she’s a perfect fit for a ‘haunted mature woman’ role that might previously have been played by Marisa Paredes. Almodóvar cleverly, but in no way callously, makes capital of the fact that Suárez is visibly older than some viewers may remember her – notably in the extraordinary coup de cinéma in which Julieta (Ugarte), bathed by her daughter, emerges from under a towel several years later as her older self (Suárez), her face visibly marked by life’s cares. In the version of this scene depicted on the film’s poster, the protective, caring Antía (never seen in the film as a grown woman) is replaced by the young Julieta as played by Ugarte, highlighting the lesson of Julieta’s interweaving of doubling, maternity and memory: to wit, that the child is mother to the woman.

 

In the September 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

Open secrets

Pedro Almodóvar’s 20th feature, Julieta, explores guilt, memory, secrets and lies in an enigmatic tale adapted from a trio of short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, about a mother trying to come to terms with her daughter’s disappearance. By Maria Delgado.

→ Buy a print copy
Access the digital edition
Subscribe

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top