After the campy in-flight antics of ‘I’m So Excited’ and the creepy shivers of ‘The Skin I Live In’, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is back on familiar ground with ‘Julieta’. A sombre, ravishing study of grief, guilt and burden, you could in all fairness sub-title the film ‘all about my daughter’ (a nod to Almodóvar’s arthouse hit ‘All About My Mother’). Told over 30 years, with two actresses (Emma Suárez and the younger Adriana Ugarte) playing one woman, this is the story of Julieta, who is facing a tragedy not dissimilar to those in Almodóvar melodramas like ‘Talk to Her’ or ‘Volver’.
Based on three Alice Munro short stories, ‘Julieta’ doesn’t soar as passionately as those earlier films – the emotions are more buttoned-up, the twists more maudlin. But the way the film’s story is gradually pieced together through extended flashbacks offers a cumulative power that’s finally extremely moving and teasingly free of easy resolution.
Suárez and Ugarte don’t just play the same woman at different ages; they play the same woman on either side of two family crises that change her forever. We first meet Julieta (Suárez) middle-aged and living in Madrid, preparing to move with her partner (Darío Grandinetti) to Portugal. But a chance meeting with Bea (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her daughter Antía, changes her mind about the move and she starts writing notes about her earlier adult life.
These memories lead us through the film. We meet Julieta as a punky young teacher in the 1980s; we witness a fateful train trip that leads to a death and introduces Julieta to her husband Xoan (Daniel Grao); we see how life gives her a daughter but later changes her in ways she’s only now coming to terms with. In many close-ups of his two lead actresses, Almodóvar invites us to read Julieta as an emotional mystery. Once again he’s supremely confident in the unexplained and maestro-like in the reveal. He plays one very special trick. The transition between the two actresses happens mid-scene: as Julieta’s daughter dries her mother’s hair with a towel and she momentarily covers her face. It’s a striking metaphor for the complicated, claustrophobic love between a mother and her daughter as the mother changes appearance before our eyes.
Being distracted by the gorgeous fixtures and fittings is par for the course with an Almodóvar film, and he even makes light of this when Julieta moves to a new Madrid apartment that’s blessed or cursed (depending on your taste) with some seriously busy ‘oppressive’ wallpaper. Elsewhere, the film has much to please Almodóvar admirers. Fans of his use of blood red (last properly seen in ‘Volver’) are in for a treat. On cars, clothes, ashtrays – it’s everywhere. Alberto Iglesias’s mournful jazzy score is affecting, and the rest of the film’s craft – cinematography, design, costumes – is typically exquisite. It might be familiar territory for Almodóvar, but only a master of his art could make it look so easy.