PEDRO ALMODÓVAR, AFTER after a messy side trip into comedy (I’m so Excited) is back in fine form with Julieta, a top-notch, if flawed, tale of guilt, passion and solipsism. Julieta is brilliantly portrayed by two actors: Adriana Ugarte as the young Julieta, and Emma Suarez as her older self.
We first get to know Julieta as a young woman teaching The Odyssey – the archetypal journey – to groups of adoring students. The story, that unfolds through a series of mirroring tales, is Julieta’s own odyssey…her life’s journey from a young carefree woman who falls in love with a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao) to an older version of herself burdened by the guilt and despair caused by the self exile of Antia, her daughter (Priscilla Delgado). (Though Almodovar wickedly inverts the story and it is Julieta who becomes the Odysseus with her two partners mere pining Penelope’s).
The story begins with a chance encounter between the older Julieta and a woman who was once a friend of her daughter. The woman has herself unexpectedly re-encountered her estranged friend, who, she tells Julieta, is now married with three kids. This memory of her daughter, which Julieta has been trying to exorcize and escape for the last twelve years, forces her to re-examine her past, which re-examination – in the form of a letter/memoir Julieta writes to her daughter – energizes the arc of the meticulously structured movie.
Told through flashback, this is her attempt to understand and come to terms with the nature of her daughter’s flight. Antia was eighteen when, erroneously blaming her mother as the cause of a terrible family tragedy, she fled from everyone…from one life to another…simply disappeared.
A heart-broken Julieta is too self- absorbed to see the parallels in her own story, which is itself a series of flights, or escapes from her own feelings of guilt…her inability to deal with things.
Perhaps, Almodóvar seems to be saying, as Julieta journeys from place to place…from life to life, every journey is a kind of escape
And these escapes are as much sexual as they are geographical. Both her father and her husband mirror escapes from the despair of ailing wives into the waiting pleasures of others. Indeed, sex is something you either escape to, or like her daughter (who, it is implied, had a lesbian fling) something you escape from. Julieta’s escape is a much deeper, more damaging one. She retreats into a kind of selfishness that locks her away from an ability to empathize with the people she loves: husband, father, daughter, friend.
This is a Southern Gothic/Carsons McCullers tragedy by way of Spain.
The movie’s weakness is that Almodóvar is too often willing to sacrifice his characters’ emotional truths for the thematic truths of the narrative; and at times, his people do things that that simply feel out of character… leaves you nonplussed
No matter. He manages to pull of a marvelous balancing act: in spite of the gloominess of the tale, and the hurtful self-centeredness of his characters, they all remain compellingly engaging. (OK, they’re also compellingly good looking. But that’s not the point.) Almodóvar has a light touch that veers toward life’s absurdities rather than its gloom. So much so, that when the movie ended on a note of ambiguous optimism, with Julieta once again on a journey, now away from escapism to discovery, from despair to hope, I myself had hoped for a few more hours in their delightful company.
Perhaps I’ll just go see it again
Julieta. Dir/writer: Pedro Almodóvar. With Adriana Ugarte, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez, Inma Cuesta, Daniel Grao. Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu. Production Designer: Antxón Gómez