A sea of delicate red veils the screen, breathing and swaying with a heady sensuality, lingering just long enough to summon some Freudian speculation. Finally the crimson curtain reveals itself as the chiffon robe of a dignified woman in her Autumnal years, matter-of-factly wrapping a startlingly well-endowed statue. This rich opening scene is the first signature-move in Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Julieta (2015). Into this unexpectedly sombre work, the master of Iberian irreverence weaves many of his hallmark themes: death, infidelity, comas, funerals, terminal illness, secrets, memories and family ties. The film tells the sober tale of a woman reflecting on a life marred by guilt and loss, and is a decidedly more muted work than one might associate with the Almodóvar name – yet it never skimps on his trademark lusciousness and devotion to the nebulous female frequency.
It should come as no surprise that Julieta has a beating heart that is all woman – for nearly forty years Almodóvar’s flamboyant, fiery films have been known for their particular she-centric bent, giving female characters centre stage and pulling them into sharp and poignant focus, no questions asked. Almodóvar classics like Volver, All About My Mother and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown solidified his reputation as a director of what is often referred to as Women’s Cinema, but what the man himself prefers to call a ‘Cinema of Women’. For Almodóvar, it’s not about target markets, demographics, or even gender politics: thirty years ago, long before hashtag feminism became a bankable niche he declared simply that women just make better characters: “they have more facets, they seem to make more interesting protagonists.” Over the years he has conjured some truly fascinating and nuanced females for the screen—from nuns to prostitutes, bullfighters, drug addicts, office girls and housewives—all driving complex narratives that reflect the powerful emotional interplay waged within what he refers to as ‘the feminine universe’. In the world of Julieta however, there is no cleavage and catastrophe, no fits or farce, this is the usually perverse and plucky Spaniard at his most decorous.
The film is based on three short stories from the acclaimed 2004 book Runaway by Alice Munro. Almodóvar bought the rights around 2008 and hoped to make his English language debut with Meryl Streep in the title role, but lost his nerve and ‘got insecure’, shelving the project for years before his team at El Deseo, the production company he owns with his brother Augustine, urged him to rethink the stories for a Spanish adaptation. Transposing the mysteries and trials of Munro’s stories into the more familiar cultural setting of modern-day Madrid enabled him to grapple more directly with the themes of loss, guilt and grief at the core of the narrative. Told through extended flashbacks and limited present action, Julieta traces the relationships of mothers, daughters, wives, mistresses, friends and even housekeepers over thirty years.
A haunting soundtrack composed by Almodóvar’s long-time collaborator Alberto Iglesias sets an ominous tone, the moody score tuning the film to the key of Hitchcock from the onset. Pristinely minimalist set design that’s accented with bright bold highlights creates an atmosphere of 50s post-war chic with an unmistakeable Almodóvar flair. Despite the ongoing tone of foreboding though, there is no crime, no menace – only mystery. We meet Julieta as a steely, but clearly stricken, middle aged woman striding around her stylish Madrid apartment in her robe. She’s packing up her books and her art in preparation for a move to Portugal with her new boyfriend Lorenzo, a refined gentleman who knows better than to probe a woman about her secrets. Wrapping phallic sculptures and silently asserting a brooding female presence we get the sense that, she has a cross to bare, there is an open wound she’s trying to seal.
A chance encounter with her daughter Antía’s childhood best friend is enough to bring the ghosts of Julieta’s past rushing back to the surface. She abandons her plans to go with Lorenzo and seeks out an apartment in the very same building she raised her daughter. Julieta is bubbling pot of emotion, but she never boils over, trauma washes over her face like an angry tide, never laying to rest, never finding peace. In her new threadbare apartment, Julieta begins a letter to her daughter, its contents composing the bulk of the film. As she turns her gaze back to the supple, spikey 80s version of herself the film takes on a more ethereal quality. It’s clear from the high-key tonality and vivid symbolism that unfolds that this version of events is heavily influenced by Julieta’s thick nostalgia and personal perspective.
Julieta begins by recounting the night she met Antía’s father, the handsome fisherman Xoan, on a snowy, mountain train far from his coastal home. The music and scenic drama conspire, giving the whole mood a Barbara Cartland hue. They share a night of passion after witnessing a suicide and conceive Antía. Arriving in Xoan’s village some months later to announce the news Julieta meets Marion, played by Almodóvar stalwart Rossy de Palma. Famous for her striking, unconventional looks, the statuesque ‘Picasso Woman’ materialises here as a dowdy housekeeper, stripped of her glamour and trinkets she sports a mammy perm and an Elvira Gulch vibe. She cautions Julieta not to waste her time, after all Xoan’s wife has only just succumbed to her vegetative state and died. “The funeral was yesterday,” Marion comments flippantly, and Xoan is seeking solace at the house of a ‘friend’ Ava. Julieta stays, Antía is born and in the Galician village the lives of the four women orbit around Xoan who remains entirely unexcavated as a character and seems to be regarded by Almodóvar as little more than benign point of reference. After Xoan’s untimely death Julieta drifts numbly into a new life in Madrid, leaving behind the picturesque Atlantic coast and the troubled waters of guilt and regret. Now approaching adolescence, Antía and her new BFF Bea minister to Julieta in sweet and naïve ways as she remains adrift in sea of internal grief and guilt. Unable to connect with her mother Antía focuses instead on teenage life seeming relatively unfazed by her Mother’s almost catatonic state of mourning. As Antía drifts further and further from her mother, Julieta continues to stagger through life, a shadow of her former self, draped frequently in red.
The many faces and phases of a lifetime each take their turn to wash across the screen in a procession of colour and contrast. Almodóvar makes a point of stretching the vantage point over many years. We are always reminded; his characters are the sum of their parts, of their experiences, never static beings. Instead of being seen as a force that needs to be contained or as something that ought to eventually settle down and come to rest, the eternal mutability of women is never regarded by Almodóvar as problematic. Instead it’s this perpetual evolution of character and ceaseless ebb and flow of mood that hold our interest in them. Women in flux tend to make other directors uneasy, but Almodóvar sees the beauty and intrigue such movement brings to a story.
The women Julieta invites us to get to know range from the pubescent to the senile: too young to understand, too old to notice, and everything in between. This scope isn’t uncommon for Almodóvar and adds to his ability to paint fuller, richer pictures of women than most. Though admittedly the majority of the film takes place with pretty young things dominating the screen, its star is plainly the middle-aged Julieta. Her desperate eyes dart incessantly, searching for answers, and her emotional stability deteriorates in the face of an unbearable uncertainty. As she churns through the wounds and misgivings of her past, she isn’t framed isn’t an object of desire, a femme fatale, a shrew, a sage, a hysteric or a victim, instead Almodóvar paints her in more subtle tones. Her mannerisms, her story, her style are fluid, not fixed to a ‘type’. Though she’s clearly distraught, she never cries – she is a woman of her own making and own mind, she can stride and keep her chin up maintaining a stoic grace or dissolve into twitching vulnerability; she can shut down a relationship coldy or fall headlong into a romantic affair. She’s complex and contradictory and in these inconsistencies lies her greatest intrigue as a character. It is very easy to underestimate just how unusual it is to see a female lead be given the time and space on screen to exist as a three dimensional person, to develop and change beyond the boundaries of archetypal females and well-worn story arcs.
Despite the solemnity of the film, there remains that typical Almodóvar sense of ‘Es lo que hay’—‘it is what it is’—that informs much of his work. Things can be tragic, insane, out of control, and often a matter of life and death, but there is always a mood of impermanence, an understanding and acceptance of life’s dramas and disasters that gives all of his work certain buoyancy, even with such a grave film as Julieta. As Julieta’s bright-red beetle winds through a verdant mountain pass towards a new reality, Almodóvar’s tendency to regard life’s most extreme circumstances and painful emotions as natural, and even essential, is deeply reassuring. In the car, Julieta can see only enough road ahead to anticipate the next turn, she’s nervous but resolute. Zooming out, encompassing a vast and glorious natural scene of vibrant peaks and valleys the little red spec finds a safe path through the beauty and peril of the mountains. Again, offering a distanced vantage point, this time literally, Almodóvar implores us to step back and look at the bigger picture and consider how we all navigate the complex terrain of life. The prospect of a ‘happy-ending’ seems irrelevant, but by now, like Julieta, we can be at peace with the uncertainty, advancing confidently into an unknown future, come what may. What Julieta has in common with some of the director’s most-loved films is its unrelenting veneration for women navigating themselves, and these complex byways of lives infused with their emotional unrest and commitment to one another. While Almodóvar’s typically evocative palettes remain, gone are the hyper-bold aesthetics, eccentric characters and offbeat tragicomic plots; yet it still feels otherworldly in a way. Could the peculiar feeling that his work so often elicits have just as much to do with the subject matter as it does with his stylistic choices? Is seeing the complexities of women portrayed without criticism or condescension so unusual that it is perceived as a quirk?
In Julieta, as with a number of other his films, Almodóvar affords women the holy trinity: to be taken seriously, to be understood, and to be beautiful – at once. The fact that this is even seen to be unique or unusual is a worry. When a director is interpreted as subversive or zany when he gives women his full attention and offers them an unconditional stage there is a real problem somewhere. While there’s no doubt Almodóvar’s worlds are stylistically audacious and his narratives conspicuously convoluted, it’s the uncommon feminine filter through which he renders them that most clearly demonstrates his unique sensibilities.
Julieta is an interesting, engaging and complex story; deliciously shot, masterfully directed and bulging with pathos and charm. It happens to centre around women. When that final detail is regarded as such, a mere detail, then we will be getting somewhere in terms of depictions of women in cinema. While we wait for that day to come, Almodóvar’s worlds where women are consistently major players, without apology or explanation should continue to be celebrated in all their wonderful weirdness.
Doosie Morris is a Melbourne writer and film critic. She enjoys strong coffee, cold beer, deep breaths and big laughs.