Remember Pedro Almodóvar? Back in 1988, the Castilian filmmaker, a former punk-rocker, made a tremendous splash in North American art houses with Mujeres al borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), a campy send-up of the “women’s picture” genre starring Carmen Maura. Almost overnight, he helped pull the Spanish film industry into the latter half of the 20th century with an irresistible combo of hysterical melodramatic situations, comical overacting, and bold, colorful production values. Almodóvar, in collaboration with his producer brother Agustín Almodóvar and their company El Deseo S.A., suddenly made Spain cool. The world took notice.
Twenty-eight years and some fifteen directorial projects went by. Somewhere in the vicinity of Live Flesh (1997), it became obvious that Almodóvar was essentially remaking the same film over and over, while cynically upping the kinky-sex ante in an attempt to hold on to the “outrageous” factor that made him famous. Once again, the world took notice.
Now along comes Julieta, and Almodóvar is ready to redeem himself. Same female perspective, same stressful narrative through-line, same metro-sexual sensibility — but this time something is different. With his adaptation of a trio of short stories by Alice Munro, Almodóvar has decided to play it straight, in the story of a fragile woman dealing with loss. It’s his deepest, most emotionally powerful drama since Bad Education in 2004.
The main plot device is a flashback letter from the matronly title character (played by Emma Suárez) to her long-lost daughter Antía, inspired by Julieta’s chance encounter on a Madrid street with one of her daughter’s closest friends. In that melancholy reverie, Julieta takes us back to her days as a cute and chic classical studies professor (we’ll have to accept that occupation on faith), played by Adriana Ugarte. The ingredients of Julieta’s love life will not seem foreign to fans of directors Douglas Sirk or Frank Borzage. Beautiful people engaged in admirable pursuits. The classics prof falls in love with a humble fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train speeding through a nocturnal snowstorm. Julieta goes to live with Xoan in a seaside village. Their intense passion produces daughter Antía, but Julieta and her loved ones cannot escape the passing of time. The film’s pace appears languid but its sweep is relentless. Everything changes. Nothing remains the same.
As the young Julieta, actress Ugarte has all the frisky, optimistic sexuality of the ideal Almodóvar woman — afraid of nothing and bursting with life. The film is just as fertile, with vibrant color and razor-sharp cinematography by Jean-Claude Larrieu. Every room the characters enter is lovingly decorated down to the tiniest detail. Of course that’s true for most movies, but in an Almodóvar film we’re made to take notice — as in the Andalusian finca of Julieta’s earthy father (Joaquín Notario) and his Moroccan housekeeper/paramour (Mariam Bachir).
On the other hand, in the foreground, Suárez’s older Julieta seems distracted, idly meandering down city streets, seeking out familiar places where happier events took place, in vain. All her life Julieta has taken spiritual refuge in the work of artists, from Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) and Xoan’s friend Ava (Inma Cuesta) to Xoan himself, whose life is a canvas. Julieta is a portrait of people who, for one reason or another, allow the people they most adore to slip silently away. The most sorely missed person is Antía (played as a young woman by Blanca Parés), the one character we’re never quite allowed to glimpse clearly. Without Antía, none of Julieta’s sweet memories make sense.
It’s a more subdued Almodóvar on display here, a filmmaker ready to step right into the emotional vortex instead playing life’s little disasters for laughs. Behind the swirling, liquid performances of Suárez and Ugarte — not to mention the moral support of veteran Almodóvar stock company player Rossy de Palma as Marian, Xoan’s philosophical housekeeper — Julieta’s subject is nothing less than life, in all its transitory chaos. Grab hold of it — the movie, but of course the elusive experience of existence itself as well — before it evaporates.