Chance Encounters, Obsession and Familial Estrangement: Almodovar Works His Magic in 'Julieta'

Pedro Almodóvar rebounds after a series of disappointments with ‘Julieta,’ which reminds us of the Spanish writer-director’s greatness. Guilt and obsession drive his latest movie, which flirts knowingly with the classic Hollywood melodrama.

"Julieta." Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar; with Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Darío Grandinetti, Rossy de Palma, Inma Cuesta, Michelle Jenner, Blanca Parés, Joaquín Notario, Susi Sánchez.

The weight of guilt has always been a central component in the plots of movie melodramas. Especially guilt that informs the relations between parents and their children and, especially, between mothers and daughters. A case in point is the classic Hollywood melodrama, a prime source of influence and inspiration for the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar – from King Vidor’s “Stella Dallas” (1937) to Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” (1959).

Guilt of varying degrees, revealed gradually, also drives Almodóvar’s latest melodrama, “Julieta.” After a few films that prompted concern about where he was headed – “Broken Embraces” (2009), “The Skin I Live In” (2011) and, most acutely, his embarrassing comedy “I’m So Excited!” (2013) – Almodóvar returns to form here (although he’s still not at the top of his game, as in “Law of Desire” (1987), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), “All About My Mother” (1999), “Talk to Her” (2002) and 2006’s “Volver”).

Despite the complex plot and the visual design – as always, the work of a master – “Julieta” possesses a degree of directness and simplicity that we have already occasionally seen from Almodóvar – in 1995’s “The Flower of My Secret,” for example. The new picture is gorgeous but without the urge toward spectacle, which in the director’s recent films has affected the quality of his work. As a result, “Julieta” generates a feeling of ambivalence that actually enriches it. On the one hand, it exudes emotion. But on the other, the emotion seems to be confined within, as it is also confined within the protagonist, tormenting her and gnawing at her from within.

“Julieta” was inspired by three short stories – “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” – by the Canadian writer Alice Munro, which appear in the Nobel laureate’s 2004 collection “Runaway.” Almodóvar originally intended to use the stories as the basis for his first English-language film, to be set in New York rather than Munro’s small Canadian towns. But in the end he shifted the setting to Madrid.

A scene from 'Julieta.'
Lev Cinema

Almodóvar’s attraction to Munro’s writing is interesting. At the most basic, superficial level, the connection is based on the fact that Munro’s stories, like most of Almodóvar’s movies, deal with women. Furthermore, Munro’s stories and Almodóvar’s films both possess a breached structure. A creative framework is sometimes apparent between the two artists, who work in such different geographical locales, in the navigation of their narrative devices.

Emotional restraint

In “Julieta,” Almodóvar intertwines the three short stories and adapts them freely. One immediate link between the stories and their cinematic rendering is the emotional restraint I described earlier, from which the film derives its singularity and heft.

Julieta (Emma Suárez), a lecturer in Greek mythology – elements of Greek mythology are interwoven throughout the movie, as they are in one of the short stories from which Almodóvar draws his plot – intends to leave the Spanish capital and relocate to Lisbon with her partner, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). True to melodrama, fate intervenes in the form of a chance encounter. Julieta meets Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her daughter, Antía (Blanca Parés). Beatriz tells Julieta that she ran into Antía, with whom Julieta has had no contact for 12 years; Julieta now discovers that her daughter is married with three children.

This chance meeting awakens all the emotions Julieta had been suppressing. The mother, who was abandoned by her daughter, decides to break off the relationship with Lorenzo and scrap their move to Portugal. She moves back into the apartment in which she lived with her daughter before Antía disappeared. She starts writing Antía a letter, describing the circumstances of her life. The letter morphs into a flashback – a story within a story, a movie within a movie – whose style is closer to a classic Hollywood melodrama than the framing story.

The flashback begins with Julieta on a train. (She is now played by Adriana Ugarte, who is blond, like Suárez, but it doesn’t really matter to Almodóvar whether the choice of this actress convinces us that she will look like Suárez when she’s older, because this is a story within a story, a movie within a movie.) She meets two men on the train: One is a mysterious figure who takes a seat in Julieta’s compartment and wants to strike up a conversation with her. But Julieta shies away from him and goes to the dining car, where she meets Xoan (Daniel Grao), an attractive married fisherman, and spends the night with him.

Julieta’s attitude toward the mysterious man who wanted to speak to her, and his fate, createsthe flashback’s first melodramatic peak – Almodóvar’s directorial ability is at its expressive height in the train scenes – and generates one of the multiple sources of Julieta’s sense of guilt. Less so, the fact that she spent the night with a married man whose wife has been in a coma for five years, though that fact, too, will affect Julieta’s psyche over the years.

Julieta becomes pregnant after her one-night stand, and comes to Xoan’s village to inform him of this on the very day after his wife dies. Is this melodrama or not? Her arrival displeases Xoan’s housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma – an Almodóvar regular), who tells Julieta that Xoan has had a long-term relationship with Ava (Inma Cuesta), a sculptor who lives in the village. Nevertheless, Xoan and Julieta marry, and Antía (who is played by three different actresses at different stages of her life) is born. 
This is as much of the plot as I will reveal. I will say only that the shift back to the present from the flashback is one of the loveliest cinematic moments I’ve witnessed in a long time.

Gentle thriller aura

The return of repressed guilt drives the film forward and lends it an almost abstract nature, which clashes with the framing story and flashback. Here, too, a connection is discernible between Almodóvar’s picture and Alice Munro’s writing. The resurfacing of the repressed – after a few years of awaiting her daughter’s return, Julieta removed all signs of her from her life – generates the obsession that motivates Julieta following her encounter with Beatriz. It is the abstract nature of this obsession that shapes the center of the film, which delves into mother-daughter relations and connects them to guilt that is simultaneously conscious and unconscious, without according the relations facile psychological motives. 

The preoccupation with the repressed, with obsession and with guilt cast a gentle thriller aura over the melodrama. Indeed, the classic melodrama at its best was never very far from the thriller. And the thriller at its best – like in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for example – operated in the realm of melodrama.

In “Julieta,” in characteristic Almodóvar fashion, the connection to and departures from genre clash with the film’s slightness in a way that touches on those sources’ obsessive and abstract nature. Almodóvar’s way of processing that essence becomes an investigation of its mythic foundations, which is interwoven smartly and delicately into the film with the director’s trademark virtuosity.