Julieta begins with breath. A body expands, taking in air, draped in a billowing garment so red it borders on garish. In, out. In, out. Soon we see that the body inside the vibrant silk belongs to Emma Suárez, playing, here in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, a woman poised on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Based on a cycle of three stories from Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway, the film depicts three crucial moments in the title character’s life: the conception of her daughter, the death of her lover, and her middle-aged reckoning with the ways she and her child have failed each other. The story cycle is classic Munro, plain but twisted, a depiction of how easily the rocky interior dimension of the self can fail to match the placid surface. Almodóvar’s adaptation swaps out 1960s Vancouver for 1980s Madrid, 1970s Whale Bay for the northwestern coast of Galicia in the 1990s. He also drastically rewrites the ending, and yet his Spanish Julieta lives her life according to the rhythm and tone of Munro’s original story cycle. The Canadian version is much colder, but Almodóvar hews close to the sombreness and the sense of arbitrariness with which the principal character is forced to endure the pain of loss.
Arguably, Almodóvar is Spain’s best-known auteur, a distinction he has earned in part through his appreciation of the near-ludicrous extremes of human experience—and, of course, from the recognizable visual quality his films share. They typically display an intense colour palette—in Julieta, he handles the extremes of love and loss with a new sense of restraint, but the actors and sets are still richly draped in electric blues and his trademark matador red. The lush colours and affection for camp are traits the filmmaker has built into his work since his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls Like Mom, a harrowing story about a woman seeking revenge after being raped by a cop, which is transplanted into a shiny queer farce set in Madrid’s lesbian punk-rock scene.
Made in the aftermath of a dictatorship, Almodóvar’s earlier films often have a wildly recalcitrant energy borne of a sudden and overwhelming sense of social liberation. In his 1986 book, The Triumph of Democracy in Spain, British historian Paul Preston succinctly describes the Spanish public’s response to General Francisco Franco stepping down to die: “above all, popular enthusiasm for the new regime [was a] palpable [sign] that democracy was tapping energies long suppressed. A short-lived pornography boom at cinemas and newspaper kiosks was the symptom of change which most infuriated [Franco’s remaining government officials].”
In this environment—jubilant, sexually liberated, experimental, and daring—Almodóvar set about making art. At first, he shot cheap, quick, and dirty; he’d write campy plots and shoot on the weekends, in 16 millimetre, casting the musicians, artists, and scenesters in Madrid’s burgeoning punk-inflected art world, La Movida Madrileña. He graduated to feature work, releasing first, in 1980, Pepi, Luci, Bom, then 1983’s Dark Habits, a film about drug-addicted, romance-writing nuns and the occasionally murderous call girls they take in. Earlier this year, Almodóvar lamented in an interview that making a film like Dark Habits would not be possible in today’s Spain. “It would have had a very radical and violent response from the religious establishment,” he told the Guardian. (After two general elections in the course of six months, and three hundred days of congressional upheaval, Spain’s current government shifted back toward the religious right this past October with the instatement of the Catholic People’s Party.)
While he repeatedly works with the same actors, and even some of the same storylines, Almodóvar’s versatile aesthetic unites his body of work and allows him to attain an unheralded degree of diversity across genres. He makes pulpy sex thrillers (in 1986’s Matador, more than one character is unable to reach orgasm without killing something or someone) as easily, it seems, as finely realized stories about the human capacities for pain and love (2002’s Talk To Her, another, softer Matador story about the effects of mingling tenderness and violence). In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelesohn proposed that Almodóvar’s career has followed a kind of spectrum, from campy, neon melodramas to something more subdued, grown-up, beginning with 1995’s The Flower of My Secret. The schema makes a kind of narrative sense—The Flower of My Secret is, in fact, a film in which an artist, a novelist, finds it difficult to continue to produce the pink love stories that have made her famous and has instead written, to her editor’s supreme displeasure, a Highsmithian rape-revenge potboiler. But narrative sense has never been all that important to Almodóvar’s films, and such a continuum is a maladroit way of understanding how his work has changed. Julieta feels as far away from 2007’s subdued Volver as it does from 2013’s high-flying singsong farce I’m So Excited! (the existence, and reception, of which may do its part to destabilize Mendelsohn’s too-tidy narrative of a temporal arc from silly to subtle).
Julieta is Almodóvar’s first digital film, but the formal crispness is primarily a result of the film being set largely in a cleaner, less populous, and more moneyed Madrid than the director has previously depicted. The globalizing effect of Western luxury is on display, with expensive-looking minimalist sets, white walls, and clean mid-century chairs. In the opening scene, we see Emma Suárez breathing, yes, but also preparing to leave her chic apartment, traipsing across honeyed hardwood floors, and packing up her art collection and her library. Suárez, as Julieta, narrates part of the film in the form of a letter to her estranged daughter, Antia—we see her composing this letter at a clear glass desk, on a sleek modern leather chair, one leg extended glamorously out from a white silk shirt-dress. Framed by this unstuffy, cosmopolitan display of good taste, Julieta is unlike so many of Almodóvar’s other heroines; Suárez’s performance is contained, and her opaque, arresting face is often shot in tight close-up. Her grief and her anger animate her intermittently, but even at the peak of her sorrow she retains this statuesque, uniquely serious quality.
The younger Julieta, played by a rangier, kinetic Adriana Ugarte, possesses a similar kind of containment, albeit with a sly nervousness that gives her part an electric charge. Ugarte’s Julieta, a young classics teacher, meets Xoan—a rugged fisherman played with a sensual severity by Daniel Grao—in the dining compartment of a cross-country train. With her new-wave hair and bright blue tights, she’s just left her seat, disturbed by the talkative man across from her. When her seatmate commits suicide, Julieta and Xoan take comfort in each other’s arms, conceiving their daughter, Antia, in the process. Ugarte’s scenes have a familiar sense of the kitschy, cluttered sets of Almodóvar’s early works. Taking place through the late 1980s and early 1990s in coastal Galicia and deep in the Andalusian farmlands, Julieta’s life before the death of her husband and the disappearance of her daughter is full, messy, and vibrant. Afterwards, Ugarte and Suárez are each given the task of depicting this woman disposing of the clutter of her life.
Both performers play Julieta with an emotional reserve atypical of the histrionic and even slapstick characters typically associated with Almodóvar’s female-centred films. And while he injects a bit more passion into his Julieta than appears in Munro’s original stories, the film is moodier, more subdued, than any of his others. Watching Julieta, and so many of his other movies, it occurred to me that running through Almodóvar’s body of work is a persistent willingness to recast the large dramas of liberty’s ongoing tussle with humanity and history as intimate stories of families, of lovers, of friends. As parable, as outright commentary, as artistic rebellion, Almodóvar’s films have for these past three decades probed at the soft barrier between the private lives of Spaniards and the collapse of Franco’s dictatorship.
Watching, for instance, All About My Mother, the 1999 breakout that won Almodóvar an Oscar, two BAFTA awards, and six Goyas, in the wake of 2016, a year of notable political disappointments, provided something revitalizing—not quite a salve, but nourishment. Like Julieta, the film depicts a mother who has lost her child, though this time through death. Cecilia Roth plays Manuela, a nurse who works with a service that enables posthumous organ donation and transplant. Her teenage son, Esteban, is killed one rainy night in a car accident after he attempts to get an autograph from his favourite actress, Huma Rojo. Esteban’s death leads Manuela on an unwitting journey of reconciliation with the family she thought she’d left in the past. Her ex-husband, who has since come out and started using her chosen name, Lola (played by Toni Cantó), is dying from AIDS. A young nun, played by a fresh-faced Penélope Cruz, is forced to leave the order after becoming pregnant by Lola. Manuela becomes entangled in the affairs of those around her, revisiting some of her own pain as she learns to live without her son. Here in this film about family and grief, Almodóvar contends with the after-effects of human liberty, of freedom—we hurt and we love each other, and even when we want to control and to fix, we cannot, not totally. Not as public administrators, not as governments, not as mothers nor as children.
In Julieta, in which the main character comes of age during the peak of Spain’s cultural revolution, we can see an intimate depiction of the social climate, channelled through a story of loss. Julieta raises Antia away from the church, sending her to secular summer camps and raising her among artists. As a girl, she’s empowered to go out and fish with her father, and when Xoan dies in a storm, Antia becomes a full player and decision maker in their family affairs. Then, shortly before her twentieth birthday, the daughter leaves for an isolated spiritual retreat and completely disappears, actively cutting her mother out of her life. Julieta learns to live without her daughter and creates a new adult life for herself that is as if she’d never given birth to Antia at all. Eventually, Julieta is forced, as Manuela was, to open the door to the pain she thought she’d sealed in the past.
So many of Almodóvar’s movies investigate origins and family patterns. Julieta becomes angry with her father for falling in love with a younger woman while her mother is on her deathbed, even though the viewer knows Julieta and Xoan fell in love while his wife was wasting away in a coma. These kinds of patterns repeat both in the individual films and across them—a director in 2009’s Broken Embraces, for example, is engaged in making a film with seemingly the same script as 1998’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which itself investigates the intersection of family and geopolitics. Almodóvar makes films enabled by and in celebration of the expressive freedom that his historical moment permitted him, but he doesn’t shy away from telling tightly focused, intimate narratives—often women’s stories, contained to the domestic realm rather than the braggadocio theatre of war.
In 1989’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodóvar touches directly on the legacy of despair regarding the Spanish Civil War. Antonio Banderas plays a young man who, upon being released from a non-voluntary mental-health institution, kidnaps a woman he’s only met once before. Convinced of their shared romantic destiny, he ties her up and essentially hangs around waiting for Stockholm syndrome to kick in. Toward the film’s disturbing end, he brings her to the war-decimated village where he was raised, and it becomes clear that he is caught in a cycle of trauma, inflicting psychic damage because he himself is irreparably broken. It is a rare moment of Almodóvar bearing witness to the direct correlation between a womanly realm of intimate violence and the masculine space of war.
Since last autumn, I’ve spent hours and hours in the world Almodóvar has been creating anew with every one of his films. Watching and rewatching them as the global order seems to shift—with the destabilization of the European Union, the increasing popularity of white nationalist movements across Europe, and the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States—has been an education. My initial sense of political impotence has started to fade. Deep in a well of anger, terror, and the paralyzing sense of both my own moral failures and the seeming triviality of my work in the face of fear, I turned toward an artist who has spent a career making films in response to the freedoms we need to celebrate and, more than ever, defend.
Julieta, sad and searching, crisp and clear, does not hold the answer for anyone sitting with the hysterical question, What comes next? But the film, like so many of Almodóvar’s others, demonstrates instead a way of seeing, a way of thinking, a way of feeling through what it means to be here, in a time one can only call extreme.
Emily M. Keeler is the vice president of PEN Canada and the editor of Exploded Views, a series of provocative short volumes from Coach House Books. This is her first piece for Brick.