Judging by his recent output, Pedro Almodóvar seems reluctant to be the kind of director whose style can be identified by just one film alone. The intense, sometimes murderous love stories for which he is known were superseded by his last two works, the creepy clinical thriller, The Skin I Live In (2011) and the camp, airplane disaster caper I’m so Excited (2013). Judging by the critical and commercial indifference that the latter of those met with, it is perhaps not surprising that Almodóvar has returned to the sort of subject matter that made films like Volver (2006) and Broken Embraces (2009) so successful.
Penélope Cruz is not on hand this time, however, to provide Almodóvar’s latest film, Julieta, with some star power. The cast is composed of actors that are respected in Europe but who are relatively unknown internationally. For the purposes of Julieta, in which two actresses play the lead character for different periods of her life, the choice is understandable.
Emma Suárez stars as (the older) Julieta, who lives in Madrid but is planning to move away with her partner, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). Painful memories are stirred, however, after she runs into an old friend, who mentions that Julieta’s estranged daughter, Antia, is now living in Switzerland with her three children. For reasons unknown at this point, Julieta falls into a deep despair and breaks off her plans with Lorenzo.
It is only when Julieta begins writing a letter to Antia that her story really begins and it turns out that it begins and ends with her daughter.
This is where the film flashes back to Julieta’s past. Her letter to Antia becomes her narration, a dredged-up memory of the most painful period in her life. We see how Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) meets a handsome fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), and falls in love with him. They have a daughter together, but years later, when Antia (Priscilla Delgado/ Blanca Parés) is still young, Xoan dies in a tragic accident at sea. Julieta becomes depressed and is cared for by her daughter and her best friend, Bea (Sara Jiménez/Michelle Jenner). Some years later, however, Antia leaves home to attend a spiritual retreat. It is the last time Julieta sees her daughter for a long time.
Julieta is, in part, about the pain of parenthood and the difficulty of letting your children grow up. Ironically, Julieta is deeply hurt by Antia’s disappearance (it should be made clear that Antia isn’t a missing person, only intentionally hard to find) but she is reluctant to see her own father. Somewhat understandably, Julieta is aggrieved when, after the passing of her mother, he strikes up a relationship with a much younger woman. Still, she doesn’t quite link her desire to maintain her distance with the possibility that her own daughter feels the same.
Once the film settles into the past and Julieta’s story, it turns into a tale of aching hearts, betrayals and guilty consciences. The charged emotional atmosphere means that it frequently lapses into a soap-operatic mode, particularly when the strings of the soundtrack begin to surge. But Pedro Almodóvar is so perceptive that it mostly transcends any feeling of melodrama.
Subtle but important details are picked out, such as the torn photograph of Julieta and her daughter, which by the end of the film has such a powerful symbolic attachment to the character that any confusion it might have caused at the beginning is forgotten. Almodóvar is even able to turn a simple shot of a tattoo into the most heart-breaking, pivotal moment of the whole film.
The director has himself conceded that Julieta ‘will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story…You don’t know everything about people or enjoy their company when you meet them for the first time.’ His words are certainly true. Upon repeat viewing, some of the more peripheral characters, such as the severe maid, Marian (Rossy de Palma), or Xoan’s lover, Ava (Inma Cuesta) stand out a lot more, and the disjointed narrative isn’t such an issue when you know what’s at stake in the first place. Julieta is so rich with details that it would be near-impossible to absorb everything it offers the first time you see it.
It may seem like a bit of a dodge by Almodóvar to suggest that one can only really know his film the second time around but unlike I’m So Excited, which was fun but flimsy, Julieta, despite its sadness, will absolutely leave you wanting more.