Perhaps the director’s most restrained effort yet.
The words “Un film de Almodóvar” unspooling at the beginning of a movie are a visual safety blanket for art film lovers. For more than 30 years, we know what to expect when they flash across the screen: twisty tales filled with bawdy sex, outrageous characters and strong female leads. Critics and audiences alike balked at Pedro Almodóvar’s last film, the lightweight sex farce I’m So Excited, mainly because it eschewed the headier subjects of the Spanish director’s later films. But for those familiar with Almodóvar’s body of work from the early ‘80s, I’m So Excited makes sense. It was a merely a palate-cleansing confection, a fun romp and nothing more (even if there was an undercurrent about the state of the European Union).
Almodóvar returns with Julieta, perhaps the director’s most restrained effort yet. Based on three short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta falls in line with his other sadness-tinged melodramas such as All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Volver, but without much of the sense of humor and subversive characters that populate those prior successes. When we first meet Julieta (Emma Suárez), she is in her mid-50s, packing up her Madrid apartment so she can move to Portugal with her boyfriend. There is a sadness about her and we soon learn that her daughter, Antía has been absent for many years. After a chance encounter with someone from the past, Julieta opts to remain in Madrid, moving into the apartment she used to share with Antía in the hope that her daughter will return to her.
Why is Julieta so sad and why is Antía missing? Almodóvar hooks the viewer with these questions and via a long flashback we eventually learn the truth. In these scenes, Adriana Ugarte plays Julieta in her early-30s. During a lengthy (and tragic) train journey she meets the mysterious Xoan (Daniel Grao), who is a fisherman, and they have wild sex in a sleeping car. They eventually meet again, fall in love and marry. Soon, Antía comes along and the family lives in relative happiness, until tragedy strikes again, leading Antía to break away from her mother.
Although Julieta is a relatively straightforward affair, Almodóvar tips his hat (once again) to Alfred Hitchcock. MacGuffins abound and Almodóvar regular Rossy De Palma turns up as Xoan’s sinister housemaid that isn’t too dissimilar to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers. But unlike the director’s clear nod to Hitchcock with Bad Education, Julieta really isn’t a suspense story at all. It’s just a sad tale of a family broken apart by a tragedy.
Alice Munro is one of our most beloved short story writers, but high drama is not something she typically includes in her work. Removing that sort of material from an Almodóvar film is almost a bigger departure than the lightweight fluff of I’m So Excited since the source material lacks the type of subversion that is inherent in most of his films. By the time we reach Julieta’s hopeful, yet open-ended conclusion, we’ve seen the history of a family in need of healing. Though we never find out if Julieta and Antía reconcile, a strong hope pervades and the cathartic release we long desire is just around the bend.