A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is a reason to sit up and take note. The Spanish director is a bona fide maestro of film: unwilling to compromise his artistic vision in laying bare the conflicts of the psyche whilst remaining practically mainstream and commercially viable, Almodóvar is to European cinema what Ozu was to Japanese cinema.
Julieta, his new film based on a series of short stories by Alice Munro, is elevated beyond mere vivacity by the extent to which Almodóvar challenges the viewer to ponder the consequences of our most seemingly innocuous actions. Not merely a story about guilt, mortality and depression filtered through a series of fundamentally troubling relationships, Julieta is a portrait of one woman failing to come to grips with the reality into which she has unknowingly cornered herself.
The film begins with Julieta (Emma Suárez) about to uproot herself from Madrid. A random encounter with her estranged daughter’s childhood friend sends her spiralling into despair. Instead of moving to Portugal with her new partner, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti, Talk to Her), she abandons him and moves back to the apartment block in which she once lived with her daughter, Antía. The film then unfolds in flashback as Julieta unburdens herself in a series of letters exploring why she believes her daughter absconded.
In these flashback sequences, Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte. Her first meeting with Antía’s father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), is clouded by a deeply foreboding and somewhat prescient encounter with a stranger on a train. Unintentionally, Julieta sets herself on a path of self-destruction – perhaps more Schopenhauerian than Freudian in its outlook despite its mundanity. Fundamentally, however, it is not that Julieta’s life is pre-destined or that she cannot choose to act differently; rather the implication is that her actions are irrelevant. To make a clumsy classical analogy, she is much like Sisyphus, eternally doomed to having to push against the inevitable tide.
That said, none of her interactions or choices are particularly at odds with that which one would expect from a rational human being. Consequently, the film occasionally appears slight: her interactions with her parents, husband, daughter, housekeeper, partner and acquaintances could often be misconstrued as the product of a Douglas Sirk protégé instead of a contemplative reflection on the troubling aspects of maternal obligation. However, to believe the former would be to misunderstand the complexity of Almodóvar’s moral philosophy.
One of the most obvious points of the interest in the film is the choice of using two actresses to portray Julieta. This is not merely a stylistic decision, but is vital to understanding the character. The moment when Ugarte metamorphosises into Suárez comes at critical juncture. The pervasive effervescence of Antía may have offset Julieta’s suffering to a degree, but there is real emotional resonance when the audience becomes aware of the emotional turmoil which has led to this physical transformation.
Another significant, albeit fleeting, allusion in the film occurs in a queue at a cinema, when the camera pans away from a poster for Winter’s Bone. The parallels which this draws are intriguing, reinforcing the film’s thematic core by suggesting that the struggle to maintain a sense of equilibrium in the world is ultimately challenged by forces beyond our control. Almodóvar’s repeated use of the flashback trope throughout his oeuvre indicates an obsession with the past and the power it holds over the future.
Almodóvar imbues his work with a profound sensitivity, and although Julieta is not as intricate as his finest works (Talk to Her, Bad Education etc.), Almodóvar once again demonstrates his extraordinary skills as a filmmaker. A deeply bleak view of the deterministic nature of life, coupled with a pervading sense of self-propagating guilt which consumes individuals and the inevitability of melancholy, Julieta is a reason to keep believing in the power of cinema.