Julieta (2016), Pedro Almodóvar's latest film, is a mature combination of the themes of l'enfant terrible of Spain's la movida — the rowdy years after Franco’s death — and his cinematic techniques. But if you go to this film expecting to see rape, kinky sex, or lesbian love, you will be disappointed. Elle, Nocturnal Animals, and The Handmaiden, other controversial current films, will fit that bill respectively. Almodóvar seems content to portray some of his best melodrama in a subdued manner.
Loosely based on three of Alice Munro's linked short stories, “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” from her 2004 book Runaway, Julieta begins with one of Almodóvar’s signature techniques, a close up of the protagonist’s vibrant red dress, worn by the marvelous Emma Suárez. Julieta is in the midst of packing to move to Portugal with her lover, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But an unexpected encounter with her daughter’s friend brings her back to the focus of the story: a broken mother-daughter relationship.
An odd pairing
It may seem strange that Almodóvar would be interested in Alice Munro’s introspective work. He even thought of Meryl Streep for the title role and filming it in Boston. But, eventually, he went back to what he knows best and the action takes place in Spain, first in a small town in Galicia, then later, in Madrid. What the Spanish auteur shares with the Canadian Nobel laureate is their interest in women’s plight, and mothers in particular — see All About my Mother (1999) and Volver (2006), based on Almodóvar’s own mother, with whom he was very close.
An episode in a train, presented in flashback and represented by a luminous young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) closest resembles Munro’s story “Chance.” Interestingly, it’s also the one that is the most typical of Almodóvar, because of the dramatic events outside and the sexual encounter inside, which take place on bright red seats. “Hers [Munro’s] is the feminine version, mine the masculine,” Almodóvar noted in a New Yorker interview.
Ironically, the film’s ending is less dark than Munro’s “Silence,” where her Julieta is practically a recluse. Another of Almodóvar’s characteristic traits is the casting of Rossy de Palma, who has appeared in several of his films, although there is no humor in her portrayal of Marian (Munro’s Ailo), who warns Julieta of an upcoming tragedy. Rossy de Palma, with her Picasso-like nose, has transformed into an old witch, mythically associated with that northern region of Spain.
Julieta has not been well received in Spain, in part because it isn’t funny and the Spanish audience expected the more eccentric Almodóvar; after some lukewarm reviews, he cancelled all press appearances there. But the soundtrack’s closing song, sung by an old-time favorite of Almodóvar´s, Chavela Vargas, is moving enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes. (I have seen the original Spanish version and could understand the words. I hope that the subtitles in English translate them.) Almodóvar says the film represents a “fourth phase” in his career, and he is proud of this more mature and somber work.