Although his two previous feature films, The Skin I Live In (2011) and I’m So Excited (2013) marked a return somewhat to the more excitable, kitschy style of his ‘80s breakthrough films, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Julieta sees the director back in more familiar territory, at least compared to his other 21st century works. This is indeed a luxurious, dramatic, pulsating piece of work from Almodóvar, with dense writing steeped in literary allusions and a piercing cinematic eye, taking in cross-generational loss and trauma, the ripples of guilt, and as so often in the director’s work, the surviving power of women.
The film stars two actresses as the titular character in different periods of her life: Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as the older and younger incarnations respectively. Opening in modern-day Madrid, we are introduced to the elder Julieta, preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Her plans are derailed when she runs into Bea (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her 12-years missing daughter, Antía, who tells her that Antía is still alive, living in Switzerland and with three children. The flood of memories proves too much; she cancels the move and recollects her memories in a journal. Then the film shifts to her younger self, a classical literature teacher on the train to Madrid, where she meets fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao). Falling in love, she becomes pregnant with Antía and moves in with him, and all seems well until a storm one day breaks after an argument over Xoan’s infidelities, sinking his boat and him with it. The perspective then shifts directly to Julieta’s trauma and her cocooned relationship with her daughter as they move back to Madrid.
The foundations of Julieta’s plot machinations can be found in Almodóvar’s previous work; in All About My Mother (1999), Cecilia Roth returns to Barcelona from Madrid after losing her son, and the leaving behind of places of trauma is repeated here. So too is the motif of comatose partners, Xoan entering into the story with the admission that his wife has been in a coma for five years, a major element of Talk to Her (2002). If Volver (2006) is all about women rising above the tragedies and mistakes of men, then Julieta is the coin-flip of that: what happens when the tragedies become too much to bear? How does the person cope? Julieta works as a continued elaboration of many of Almodóvar’s favourite themes, drawing on his past work to create new angles from which to view the same ideas.
The men in Julieta’s life never quite seem to be entirely attached to Julieta herself. Xoan has his infidelities and his previous wife; her father falls in love with the much younger carer of Julieta’s ailing mother, much to Julieta’s anger. Lorenzo, as loyal and patient a man as she finds in the course of the film, never gets to know the true Julieta as she refuses to tell him about her past. Julieta closes in her on herself, shutting out the outside world, unable to find genuine closure with the ghosts of her past still looming.
The depth of the film is something to behold. Whilst Julieta perhaps lacks the narrative complexity of The Skin I Live In or the emotional gut-punch of All About My Mother, its remarkable how easy Almodóvar makes the whole thing look. Those familiar with his work don’t need to be told how immaculate the cinematography, production design, performances et. all are. Suffice to say there are plentiful incredible images here; most striking is Almodóvar’s decision to change from Ugarte to Suárez in one bold stroke, as one actress’s head is covered by a towel to dry off her hair, only for the other to appear afterwards, Julieta literally aging before our very eyes. Julieta might be standard Almodóvar these days, but an average film for the Spanish master is a brilliant one by anyone else’s standards.