Julieta (Emma Suarez) is a middle-aged woman living in a beautiful apartment in Madrid, seemingly in retirement. She has a relationship with a writer named Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) and she is preparing to move to Portugal with him. Then she runs into a younger woman from her past named Bea (Michelle Jenner), who informs Julieta that she ran into the older woman’s long-estranged daughter, Antia. This sends Julieta into a personal tailspin: she cancels her plans with Lorenzo, moves back into her old apartment, and begins writing her life story/apology to Antia in a book.
We find out that when Julieta was a classics teacher in her twenties (played by Adriana Ugarte), she hooked up with a stranger named Xoan (Daniel Grao) on a train and got pregnant with Antia. She reconnects with Xoan after realizing she’s late, and finds out that he is a fisherman who is married to a comatose woman who has just died. Xoan has a close relationship with a beautiful sculptor named Ava (Inma Cuesta), one that involves not a small amount of platonic boning, which pisses off Julieta when Xoan slips up in hiding his indiscretion. It also doesn’t help that Marian (Rossy de Palma), Xoan’s housekeeper, doesn’t seem to particularly like Julieta, and implies that she’s just another in a line of side-pieces for her studly employer.
At this point, Antia is around 10 years old and away at summer camp, where she meets her close friend, Bea. Julieta and Xoan have a row, she goes out, and he decides to go fishing, despite the choppy waters. The waves turn into a full-on storm, and Xoan’s boat sinks, leaving only his partial remains. Julieta sinks into complete non-functional despair, forcing her and her daughter to relocate to Madrid, where Antia takes care of her mother at the expense of her own happiness. Then, when Antia turns 18, she vanishes from Julieta’s life.
Despite the film’s relatively brief 99-minute runtime, there is a lot of story packed into Julieta. Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar is adapting a series of three short stories by Nobel Prize-winner, Alice Munro, whose expertise is in the excavation of the past lives and current difficulties of complex women (see also: Away from Her). Because this is a film by Almodovar, you can count on staggeringly beautiful people crowded in the frame by gorgeous production design and bold swatches of color. The film’s tone teeters somewhere between wistful nostalgia and hushed melodrama, goosed a bit by Alberto Iglesia’s sometimes oppressive score. The characters and their relationships comprise the centerpiece, but they tend to be at odds with the sheer amount of incident going on in the film. This is what happens when you adapt not one, but three stories into a single movie.
Suarez – who won the film’s lone Goya – anchors the film. Compared to the Greek gods and goddesses who otherwise make up the cast, Suarez looks like a (relatively) normal human being, grounding the film in a sense of emotional reality that is somewhat absent in the segments set earlier in the time. Her performance ranges the gamut from blissful confidence to complete rock-bottom misery, and she carries the weight of her character’s history squarely on her shoulders. Ugarte, on the other hand, is so distractingly beautiful that she can occasionally come across as stiff, as do Grao and Cuesta, the other players in their Apollonian triptych. Given that we are receiving Julieta’s history through her own lens, it makes sense that these stunning individuals would be cast in their parts, lending a bit of a rose-colored hue to an otherwise torrid background. Nowhere during the film is this more apparent than the brilliant scene when a towel is removed from Ugarte’s face to reveal that of Suarez, right at the moment of her personal nadir.
It’s a movie about guilt, selfishness and the relationship between parents and children, which are played out in multiple parallels in the film (we also meet Julieta’s farmer father, whom she hypocritically resents for having an affair with his younger, sexy housekeeper as her mother dies of dementia). Almodovar, likely following the example set by Munro, keeps the film’s point-of-view restricted to Julieta, so we feel her confusion about her daughter’s disappearance as acutely as she does. When we find out what’s been going on with Antia this whole time, we’re surprised not because the movie has been holding out on us, but because we’ve been just as burrowed inside Julieta’s own cocoon of trauma as she’s been. The movie works on multiple levels because it forces you to think about your parents and how little you understand what they’re going through, unless you’re in Antia’s unfortunate position of having to drop your entire life to care for them. Either way, maybe give your mom a call, while you still can.
Drama | Sony Pictures Classics