The Passion of Pedro Almodovar
‘Julieta’ is a moving melodrama from the Spanish director
By appearances, she is a successful professional entering late middle age with every expectation of a happy next few years. Packing the contents of her Architectural Digest-to-die-for Madrid apartment, she tells her lover Lorenzo that she’ll probably never return to Spain once they depart for Portugal.
“Thank you for not letting me grow old alone,” he tells her, the first of many touching moments about the passing of time in Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta. But a chance encounter on the street next morning upsets their plans when Julieta runs into Beatriz, the once close friend of the daughter she hasn’t seen in a dozen years. Her face registers horror, even torment at the news that her daughter, Antia, is now a mother with three children. Julieta knew none of this. Time and recriminations have separated them, with the distance becoming an abyss of loss.
Julieta is composed as if in tribute to director Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, perhaps even Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Already in the film’s opening frame, the orchestral score portends tragedy in the making with its silky, dreamy, dark textures. Two colors are prominent throughout the film, the red of passion and the blue of sadness. Almodovar is able to show things forbidden by the Hollywood Production Code of the ‘50s but does so with beautiful discretion. Passionate sex between young Julieta and her future husband, Xoan, passes in reflection on the windows of their compartment in a fast-moving train. Antia was conceived in that encounter. But always evident is the sadness and disappointments that are inseparable from the happiness and promise of life. The book Julieta reads on the train is, in Spanish translation, The Greek Tragedies.
A series of flashbacks, triggered as she composes a lengthy tell-all letter to her missing daughter, fills much of the film’s running time. It’s a journey through Julieta’s past—and Almodovar’s as well. The young Julieta who meets Xoan, crowned by spiky new wave hair and earrings, embodies an aesthetic that has passed into the history books along with the era when Almodovar emerged as a brash young filmmaker. The transition from ‘80s through ‘90s and into the new millennium is handled with the subtle finesse of changing clothes, cars and phones.
If the narrative, which Almodovar adapted from a trio of short stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro, has a few creaky links, the details are less important than the emotional symphony he orchestrates. Resonant notes allude to the dreams of classic cinema and the reality of times gone by—strangers who meet on a train, the thrill of receiving a letter and recognizing the handwritten address, romance by the gently murmuring ocean and loss when rough waves claim the one Julieta loves. Guilt and jealousy suffuse the story, along with debilitation and death.
Julieta inches deeper and deeper into melodrama as the story moves from past toward present, but then, melodrama is often nothing more than reality on stage and singing an aria. In the hands of an incapable cast it could all start to look foolish, but Emma Suarez as the older Julieta, Adriana Ugarte as her young self and Dario Grandinetti as Lorenzo deliver deeply felt performances. The actors help transmute their characters into living people worth caring about.