Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta
I turned to Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver as a way to return to reality after finishing a large project on themes of motherhood and authorship in Alice Munro and Elena Ferrante. Tired from having given up so much energy on the project, I expected to be comforted by Spanish-speaking voices, indulgent colours, and the simple depiction of women speaking with each other. In a moment of ignorance, I had forgotten Almodóvar’s work with themes of motherhood, daughterhood, and all that goes unsaid in between. The exercise in escapism eventually left me wide-eyed as I recalled Almodóvar’s particular brand of zany emotional powerhouse.
Only a few months later, I learned that Almodóvar had made a film based on some stories by Munro, and I flattered myself by concluding that the Spanish director and I were both, somehow, tied to a cosmic line of thought. What’s that, you say: a film about a woman writing to her daughter after years without talking to one another? Themes of kinship and loss and guilt all weaved together? Based on the works of Alice Munro? Sign me up.
For his latest work, Almodóvar adopts the stories “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” from Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway. What was initially meant to be an English-language feature was ultimately set in Spain where Almodóvar turned Munro’s Juliet into Julieta. Munro’s character Juliet embraces echoes of other Munro women: she’s intelligent, inwardly doubtful, and grew up in a place where intelligence is a social marker of difference. On Runaway, Mary Costello writes that “Munro is a writer who has always given the inner life its due,” and Almodóvar’s respect for the inner life certainly echoes Munro’s. Marked by the same quiet, enduring heartbreak that you’ll find in a Munro story, Julieta gives viewers a beautiful homage to an inner life that is full of grief yet lacking in catharsis.
Julieta follows the protagonist through flashbacks of her earlier life and her present-day distance with her daughter Antía. The first image we see of the mother and daughter is a photograph torn to pieces, a visual marker of the titular protagonist’s role in creating a whole image from fragmented pieces.
Julieta gives us a stunning visual display of enduring sadness and inherited guilt without demanding that the protagonist make sense of it all, nor that the film solve all of her problems.
The film depicts a younger Julieta teaching classics, meeting her husband Xoan, caring for her daughter Antía, and visiting her dying mother (foreshadowing the next generation of mother-daughter relationships). When the middle-aged Julieta has a chance encounter that rejuvenates her grief, it comes from a meeting with Antía’s childhood friend (not Antía herself), and from there Julieta begins writing her story as the movie unfolds.
In this cultural moment, stories about women experiencing difficulty often turn to themes of friendship and femme kinship as a social coping mechanism. Stories of sisterhood have a broad appeal that has shaped a genre of media all about female best friends hoisting each other up. Julieta takes up the idea of women paired, but in a way that diverges from girl power positivity toward the intersection of intimacy and animosity. As her younger self, Julieta develops an intimate friendship with a woman who, Julieta later learns, had occasional relations with Antía’s father Xoan. A deep female-female intimacy can also be found in the relationship between Julieta’s daughter Antía and her wealthier friend, Beatriz. These relationships give women the space for intimacy and validation that they otherwise lack from the world.
Stories about femme kinship in popular culture should not be ignored, though there are gaps that go unfilled by stories about kinship limited by class, race, sexuality, and gender. What’s more, stories of female resilience can make even the most resilient women tired. In an interview with the Irish Times, Almodóvar describes the presence of political uncertainty in his latest film. Referencing the current global political climate, Almodóvar states, “People no longer trust politics, politicians, or institutions. They no longer feel represented. Reality always finds a way into my films.” In a time when the phrase “nevertheless she persisted” calls for women to continually endure and resist oppression, Julieta gives us a stunning visual display of enduring sadness and inherited guilt without demanding that the protagonist make sense of it all, nor that the film solve all of her problems.
In addition to being a visual feast of a film, Julieta is an excellent exercise in balancing misery and comfort. The inner life, as depicted in the works of Munro, takes on a vivid form in Julieta where the film confronts the viewer with tragedy, depression, and guilt without giving the viewer access to the most painful moments.
In this cultural moment, stories about women experiencing difficulty often turn to themes of friendship and femme kinship as a social coping mechanism.
A poignant moment in the film occurs when Antía and her friend help the grieving Julieta out of the tub. In this moment, Julieta ages on-screen dramatically as the film trades the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) for the middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez). Even so, with the camera never leaving Julieta’s frame, her face remains hidden underneath a towel. The film’s poster takes up the image and playing on the idea that it is up to the character Julieta to reveal herself, not for the film to expose her. Similarly, significant deaths happen off-screen, and the film stops as Julieta drives toward her daughter, their reunion a private affair.
Julieta depicts women giving themselves away to the point where they retreat into themselves, turning to writing, spirituality, and solitude to heal. While the film pays homage to Hitchcock, there is a marked departure from Hitchcock’s enigmatic blonde. Instead, Almodóvar gives his characters privacy while celebrating their strengths and nurturing their grief.