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Grief can be solitary. While in the throes of it, the aggrieved do not consider those closest to them, lacking the emotional capacity to fathom what others must be feeling. Julieta, the new film from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, is about how this unpleasant truth infects the life of a middle aged woman. Almodóvar can be a transgressive filmmaker—his films are notorious for their surreal depiction of sexuality—yet here he shows restraint to instead focus on the inward growth of his characters. Julieta pads out its premise with repeated shots and themes, and yet there is an incisive core to the material that raises it above mere melodrama.
Julieta (Emma Suárez) is a retired academic who lives in Madrid. She is about to move to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti—an Almodóvar regular), but then she has a chance encounter with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a woman from her past. Beatriz was once inseparable from Julieta’s daughter Antía, so seeing her awakens Julieta’s aching need for her child. Most of Julieta is told in flashback—Adriana Ugarte plays Julieta as a younger woman—and we learn the story of how she met Antía’s father. They met on a train, then had Antía while living harmoniously in a seaside town, and yet a tragedy ultimately led to Julieta’s estrangement from her daughter. Julieta recounts her past in a letter to Antía, a last-ditch effort to finally reunite.
Almodóvar films in rich, sun-drenched colors. His films always look abundantly saturated, as if the cinematography heightens the passion, loss, and redemption of his characters. Julieta is no different: the opening shot is of a blood-red dress, one that serves as a metaphor for his hero’s unflappable, cosmopolitan outlook. Julieta unravels as the film unfolds—we see her as a confident young woman and as a grief-stricken mother—and the exteriors serve as a constant metaphor for her mental state.
While the sunnier parts of Julieta look like a travelogue, the more evocative moments take place at night. After Julieta meets Xoan (Daniel Grao), the man who eventually becomes Antía’s father, they share a passionate love scene. It is a striking, gorgeous image: Almodóvar films their reflections on the window of a train car, with Julieta and Xoan’s silhouettes moving alongside the midnight-blue countryside.
Julieta has flashbacks, with several actors sharing roles, and despite the convoluted chronology, the plot is thin in comparison to other Almodóvar films. That is by design: The film is an adaptation of several Alice Munro short stories, an author who is renowned for revealing the inner lives of her characters. We see how events unfold at a surface level, with most of the focus on Julieta, only to understand later the impact she has on others.
At first, this happens on a minor scale: She and Xoan bond over shared, sudden grief over a fellow train passenger who committed suicide. The passenger could not have predicted the ripple effect his death would have on Julieta, Xoan, and even Antía. There is a similar ripple over another death, except Julieta experiences this tragedy in a more acute way. This is the sort of film that might reward a second viewing, just to comprehend the full weight of all that happens. The trouble is there is little to this story beyond inner lives, so Almodóvar pads out a film that’s already on the short side.
There are hard-learned lessons in Julieta, and they all amount to the need for empathy. For a long while, Julieta does not understand the full breadth of her parental failures, since her feelings of rage and resentment are easier than anything more probing. All the actors are well-matched for the material. In particular, Suárez and Ugarte do not attempt to mimic each other, focusing instead on the requirements of each individual moment.
More than most European filmmakers, Almodóvar’s work has the potential to reach beyond the usual art-house crowd. This is a minor entry among his work, one that fans will admire more than those who do not count Volver and Talk to Her among their favorite films. No matter who sees Julieta, however, all of them will feel a need to call their mom afterward.
Julieta opens today at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.