Pedro Almodóvar has been making movies for over forty years, and he’s still going strong. Starting out as a taboo-breaking provocateur, gradually he’s become something like the grand eminence of Spanish cinema, without, however, mainstreaming his films or selling out. His latest film, Julieta, highlights a different aspect of Almodóvar that shows up occasionally—that of a classical stylist in old Hollywood mode.
Emma Suarez plays Julieta, a middle-aged woman in Madrid, in the midst of moving to Portugal with her partner Lorenzo, to whom she confides that she never wants to return to Madrid. But by chance she runs into a young woman who was the childhood friend of her daughter Antia, and learns from her that Antia is in Switzerland and has three children. After learning this, she abruptly breaks up with Lorenzo, telling him she’s decided not to go after all, but will stay in Madrid. She refuses to explain. Then she moves to an apartment in a different part of the city, where it is evident that she and her daughter used to live.
These are the actions of someone who is keeping a secret, but the exact nature of this secret will not be revealed to the audience until much later. In the meantime, she sits down to write a letter to her daughter, a letter that propels us into an extended flashback that takes up the middle section of the film. We learn how the young Julieta, now played by Adriana Ugarte, meets a man on a train who becomes her husband and Antia’s father, and the often tumultuous circumstances of their family life and household.
Almodóvar’s style here is serenely smooth and meticulous—the strong visual surface reminds me a little bit of Hitchcock. His screenplay is adapted from three stories by the great Canadian writer Alice Munro. I haven’t read these particular stories, but I recognized Munro’s emotional depth and ambiguity in the film. Julieta has an open-ended structure, rather than feeling determined by plot mechanics, and this creates a free and lovely effect. The theme, however, is a serious one—it’s about guilt, and the overwhelming power that guilt can have on lives and relationships. Here, guilt is a primary link between mother and daughter, and between the older Julieta and her younger self. Both Suarez and Ugarte, in their first times working with Almodovar, shine and bring the story to glorious life. Ugarte is so beautiful that it’s hard to take your eyes off her.
Almodovar is one of the great artists of melodrama, in the best sense, and there are elements of that in this story, but overall this movie takes a deeper dive into realms of emotion where not everything is clear and loose ends are just a part of life. Julieta demonstrates faith in the heart, with all its darkness and complexity, and has a very special quality because of it.