Spain (2016) Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
It would appear that everyone’s favourite Spanish auteur and celebrator of women has reached such iconic status that he afford to open his films with the credit “A film by Almodóvar” – no first name! Then again, he’s earned it, whether this was an act of ego or simple reverence by his producers.
For his twentieth film, the artist formerly known as Pedro has adapted three short stories from the collection Runaway by Alice Munro, bringing them together in one long reflective saga for the title character played at first by Emma Suárez. Plans to move to Portugal with current partner Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) to start a new life are put on hold when Julieta bumps into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her estranged daughter Antía.
Beatriz tells Julieta that Antía is living in Switzerland and has three children. This stirs a strong desire for Julieta to reconnect with her daughter, prompting her to start a journal to write all her thoughts of what she wants to say to Antía. Told in flashback Julieta reflects on her life, starting with the unusual circumstances under which her younger self (Adriana Ugarte) met Antía’s father Xoan (Daniel Grao).
After the grim surgical horror of The Skin I Live In and the flamboyant frippery of I’m So Excited Almodóvar returns, albeit in a slightly more subdued form, to his high drama of his golden period of the mid-90’s. As ever women are the first and foremost concern and even coming from another pen, Julieta and co. are every much “Almodóvar” women – strong, independant, emotional and real.
The flashback narrative is not the contrivance it should be under the circumstances nor are there any discernible signs of three separate stories being conflated into one singular arc. You won’t find much, if any, of Almodóvar’s cheeky humour here but this is not a dour film either; there is a tiny bit of sex because of course there is, but as ever it is portrayed as a liberating experience for the women.
Fans of Almodóvar will know that mothers are a recurring theme in his films; this is no different, with both Julieta, and Antía proving to be difficult daughters and their respective relationships tinged with guilt. The cause of this is separation but for different reasons, both situations indicative of the generation gap that forms the attitudes and rationale behind these decisions.
In the case of Julieta, it was simply because she had moved out of home and became a teacher in the city while her family home was out in rural Spain – no spite, just ambition and desire to make it in the world on her own. We first encounter the young Juliet in the 1980’s, complete with short spiky blonde hair and shorter tight leather skirts on a train where the presence of an unnerving older man forces Julieta to find refuge in the dining car.
There she meets Xoan a fisherman who offers friendly comfort until the train screeches to a halt, because a passenger committed suicide by jumping off, later discovered to be the creepy man from before. Somehow, this led to Julieta and Xoan having sex in the carriage and many months later the couple reunite in the city and resume their affair, resulting in Antía’s birth.
Over the course of the next few chapters in Julieta’s story, the men in her life prove to be bitter disappointments. During a visit to introduce Antía to her grandparents, Julieta finds her mother (Susi Sánchez) is suffering from Alzheimer’s and barely recognises her, while her father (Joaquín Notario) is bonking their young maid Sanáa (Mariam Bachir).
A decade later when 12 year-old Antía (Priscilla Delgado) and away at a summer camp, Julieta discovers that Xoan has been fooling around with his friend Ava (Inma Cuesta). A row ensues and Xoan cools off by going on a fishing trip from which he never returns due to a terrible storm. This proves to be the turning point in the relationship for Julieta and Antía but in an interesting and unexpected way.
Whilst an acrimonious split (a rather one side one) is in their future it is not immediate. Bringing mother and daughter closer, Antía cares for Julieta’s breakdown following Xoan’s death, essentially assuming the mother role with help from live-in best friend Beatriz (Sara Jiménez). At this point in the story young Julieta transforms into older Julieta which Almodóvar marks this in a simple but brilliant way.
One thing you won’t get here is answers and we are left hanging almost at the point of orgasm but the script isn’t so obtuse that the foreplay wasn’t so stimulating that we aren’t left on a total downer. There is a quiet optimism in the conclusion, as open as it is, that both mother and daughter have arrived at a point of realisation about each other they never understood before, and this is the first step towards closure.
Visually the aesthetic symbolically matches the eras portrayed – the 80’s are vibrant and full of cour; the 90’s sees the afterglow dim a little and the modern day scenes which bookend and punctuate the film, begin with a cautious restraint before the final shot brings a pastoral warmth back to the proceedings.
The camera is trained on the two female leads, both wonderfully matched as Julieta’s two halves, capturing their radiance, their pain, their joy and their very essence when dialogue is not needed. Emma Suárez is made-up to bridge the second half of Julieta’s life from the change over from the vivacious Adriana Ugarte, a smooth switch from the youthful energy that gradually shifts in favour of seasoned gravitas.
Almodóvar is a director from whom you have an idea of what to expect without knowing exactly what you will get. Julieta isn’t as immediate as his more revered works but features all the constituent elements of an Almodóvar film and will no doubt reveal more on future re-watches.