Pedro Almodóvar has entered a spell of late-period unpredictability. After scary (The Skin I Live In) and silly (I’m So Excited!) comes sad. Julieta, adapted from three short stories in Alice Munro’s prize-winning 2004 collection, Runaway, is his most contemplative and even dour picture, a story of absences in which the strongest impression is made by people who are no longer there.
But Almodóvar in plain-Jane mode is rather like any other director dressing up for the prom – he couldn’t shoot a boring image if he tried. You can almost imagine how one particular scene in the new film might have read on the page: “INT JULIETA’S APARTMENT. DAY. A woman is seated alone, behind a birthday cake. A card arrives. She opens it.” What appears on screen is rather different. Julieta (Emma Suárez), a woman in her fifties, is wearing a rich blue dress. The cake is as round and red as a wheel of Edam. The card is the same blue as the fabric of her dress. Inside is a dainty pop-up tree. The tree is red. Blue, red, blue, red. Very fetching.
Even that colour scheme has meaning. Blue recedes from the eye, whereas red pops out at us. Placed in such close proximity, they produce the sensation of something moving forwards and backwards simultaneously. The narrative has a similar momentum: it recedes even as it advances. Julieta is preparing to uproot from Spain to Portugal when she learns that her estranged daughter, Antía, believes her still to be living in Madrid. Unwilling to jeopardise all hope of re-establishing contact, she decides to stay put, and she composes a letter to Antía. This turns into an extended flashback that takes us from Antía’s conception to the point at which mother and daughter parted company.
When Julieta (played as a younger woman by Adriana Ugarte) first meets Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a sleeper train, she has just rebuffed a middle-aged stranger who attempted to initiate a conversation with her. Tragedy follows: the man kills himself. Julieta takes refuge from her feelings of guilt in the arms of Xoan. They make love as the train speeds through the wintry night. Their reflections in the glass make it seem as if their bodies were writhing out there in the snow. The train whooshes along. Time whooshes with it.
In the patterned way typical of Almodóvar’s storytelling, relationships and themes echo across the decades. The emotional betrayals that litter Julieta’s life feel like obscure reprisals for her rejection of that stranger. After her daughter’s birth, she finds that she has been sharing Xoan’s affections with another woman. Then she discovers that her father is also dividing his love between her elderly mother and the woman he pays to care for her. No one in the film belongs straightforwardly to anyone else.
Julieta is haunted by the suspicion that she will always have to share those she loves, be it her partner or her daughter. “A woman’s profession is her family,” warns Marian (Rossy de Palma), a withering, Mrs Danvers-like housekeeper. If this is true, then what Julieta experiences must be a kind of redundancy. The company – the family – is going into liquidation.
This is the puzzle of the film. What becomes of a woman who has devoted her life to a family that falls apart? Almodóvar’s narratives can tend towards the contrived or over-fussy, but here he relies on the expressive faces of his two Julietas to steer the story, especially Suárez, whose sorrow never entirely extinguishes her inner rage at the injustices she has suffered.
There are other puzzles, not all of them intentional. Julieta’s flashbacks include several shots that show her being observed without her knowledge, even though a person can hardly remember something she didn’t witness in the first place. And it is odd that a mother would write to her daughter recounting incidents with which they are both familiar: “Four years later, you went to a spiritual retreat. Then you returned to university . . .” Clearly Almodóvar couldn’t find a better way of filling in the backstory. But you can still imagine Antía writing back:
“Yes, Mum. I know. I was there.”
Julieta (15) dir: Pedro Almodóvar
This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser