Director: Pedro Almodóvar Starring: Emma Suarez, Adriana Ugarte Running Time: 96 minutes
In Julieta, the latest film from prolific Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, guilt casts a cloud over everything. It dooms relationships from the beginning, causes dramatic upheavals and deep denials and causes rifts between mother and daughter that neither fully understand until its years too late. Adapting three short stories from the book Runaway by Alice Munro, Almodóvar manages to make one cohesive story, using guilt as a throughline to explore the relationship between a mother and daughter. The director’s melodramatic style is present but toned down in Julieta, which presents the breakdown in their relationship as a mystery where the clues come in the form of character’s neurosis rather than a candle sticks left in conservatories.
Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte both play the titular Julieta in her older and younger years respectively. On the brink of moving from Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo, Julieta happens to bump into a childhood friend of her daughter Antía, who tells her all about having run into Antía and her children while in Switzerland. The thing is, Julieta hasn’t seen her child in twelve years and this is the first she’s heard about any grandchildren. Reeling, she calls off the move, returns to the flat they used to share and begins writing her daughter a letter; a confessional about the events that led to their estrangement. From here the film flashes back to Ugarte’s Julieta, who meets Antía’s father and charming fisherman Xoan aboard a train in the snow, a romantic setting not shared with her daughter before due to the passenger suicide and Xoan’s infidelity to his comatose wife that shade in the story somewhat.
Years of secrets, sex and deaths pass and at every step Julieta is burdened by guilt. The ever present uncertainty and grief transforms her from Ugarte’s confident young teacher to the dignified but worn out Suarez, a transition completed in a fantastic scene where young Antía helps to dry her depressed mother’s hair. Ugarte goes under the towel, Suarez comes out, a showy trick that makes Julieta’s aging and the toll her grief has taken on her immediate and pulls into a spotlight that can’t be ignored. The core of Julieta‘s story is a quite simple character piece and Almodóvar’s trappings could obscure it, instead they flesh them out.
From the deep red fabrics shown in the opening title card onwards the film is filled with dramatic, saturated colours and the Hitchcock score by Alberto Iglesias help the audience share the impending sense of doom Past Julieta feels as her relationships constantly leave her on uncertain footing. Julieta’s memories feel dramatic and romanticised(she did meet her husband on a train and live with him by a stormy seaside), but the grounded performances by both lead actresses make the lead character always vulnerable and honest as she pours her soul out to her daughter, not knowing if she’ll ever get a reply. The film is a slow build up to a sudden stop but its well realised and always interesting. Julieta and Antía both feel guilt for the tragic events that shaped their lives and Julieta shows how even a person’s most internalised emotions still end up affecting the people around them.