JULIETA, drama, rated R, in Spanish with subtitles, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Pedro Almodóvar is one of those rare filmmakers for whom we should be grateful every time he steps behind the camera. He has set his own bar high as the director of All About My Mother, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her, and so many others. Like Woody Allen, he’s guilty of some lesser efforts ( Julieta is something of a rebound from his 2013 farce I’m So Excited!), but his name above the title promises richness of visuals and emotions, something drenched in mood and color, and an intriguing plot. With Julieta, adapted from three short stories by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Alice Munro, he’s a little less operatic than he has been in the past, perhaps because of the restraining influence of the Canadian source material, but it’s all still there — the richness, the deep saturating hues, the startling images, the probing insights into the female psyche.
Almodóvar had originally intended to move Munro’s stories only down below the border to New York, and to shoot it in English, with Meryl Streep as the central character (it was to be called Silence ,a title now appropriated by Martin Scorsese). But as he worked on the screenplay, he began to have doubts about whether his command of the language was sufficient to the task, and eventually Julieta gravitated to Madrid, in the director’s native tongue, with two actresses doing the work of the title character.
Those two actresses are Adriana Ugarte as the twenty-something Julieta and Emma Suárez as the character in middle age. We meet the latter first, as Julieta is planning to leave Madrid and move to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo (Frank Langella lookalike Dario Grandinetti, Talk to Her). But a chance encounter on the street changes that plan.
The person she meets unexpectedly is Bea (Michelle Jenner), who was once the best friend of Julieta’s daughter Antía. Bea is now a Vogue editor in New York, but on a shoot at Lake Como she ran into Antía, whom she hadn’t seen since they were eighteen, with her three children. Antía told Bea that her mother was still living in Madrid.
Julieta is shaken to her core, and we discover that she too has not seen Antía since then. She breaks off with Lorenzo without an explanation and moves back to the apartment building where she had lived when Antía was growing up, in the hope that if her daughter were ever to try to get in touch with her, that is where she might look. There, she takes out a notebook and begins to write an account to Antía of the events that have shaped their lives.
This is where the duality of the character comes in, as we flash back through her writing to the young Julieta on a train. She is reading a book (she’s a teacher of classics) when an older man sits down and tries to strike up a conversation. She blows him off, and retreats to the dining car, where she meets the handsome young Xoan (Daniel Grao), and sparks are struck. But so, soon after, is tragedy, and an unshakable burden of guilt.
The transition from the older to the younger actress is seamless, their resemblance is remarkable, and as the movie transitions back and forth in Julieta’s story, we feel the duality and the connectedness of youth to later life. Suárez still has a youthful beauty when we first meet her, and we have no trouble recognizing her in the young woman on the train, in a blue sweater and a spiky hairdo not unlike Almodóvar’s. Ugarte’s classic looks are reminiscent of Kim Novak in Vertigo, and the theme of strangers on a train suggests a nod toward Hitchcock, one of Almodóvar’s acknowledged cinematic heroes. Julieta isn’t overtly a thriller, and yet there is a palpable building of suspense and tension that fits the master’s mold.
Almodóvar takes us back and forth between the anguished Julieta of midde age, desperately hoping to be reunited with her vanished daughter, and the origin story of meeting Xoan, falling in love, creating Antía, and the traumas, losses, jealousies, and overwhelming guilt that followed. We discover what happened when Antía disappeared from her mother’s life without a word, a chilling scene that is every parent’s nightmare.
The duality and continuity between the young and the older Julieta suggests an echo of Almodóvar’s own transition from the ecstatic exuberance of his youthful movies to something more thoughtful, but still drenched in color and imagery, still full of passion and humor, and anything but subdued.
Duality of woman: Adriana Ugarte