“Things were happening without my participation,” Julieta, a disconsolate, middle-aged woman, says midway through Almodóvar’s latest film. She is writing to her 30-year-old daughter, Antía, from whom she’s been estranged for more than a decade, about the events of a decade before that—when Julieta confronted Antía’s father, Xoan, about an affair he’d had, and he stalked off on a fatal fishing trip. Almodóvar flashes back to the events that followed: Mother and daughter move to Madrid, where Julieta wanders about in a terrible haze while young Antía finds them an apartment. It’s there, one afternoon, that Antía and a friend discover Julieta shivering in the bath and help her out. “Rub her back well—I don’t want her to catch cold,” Antía says, wrapping a towel over her mother’s head to dry her hair. When she removes it, the actress playing Julieta—the punky, glamorous, 31-year-old Adriana Ugarte—has been replaced by 51-year-old Emma Suarez, whose soft, round beauty is made to look washed out. This, it seems, is how fast a woman’s grief for a man can age her.
In 2007, Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in the New York Review of Books, charted a gradual shift in Almodóvar’s oeuvre from “DayGlo emotions and Benzedrine-driven plots” to “intense feelings that somehow do not lead to seduction, murder, and suicide”—and from female characters who were “harpies or hysterics or vamps” to ones who were “something closer to the women of real life.” Julieta can be seen as the latest in Almodóvar’s series about the women of real life, beginning with All About My Mother (1999) and continuing with Talk to Her (2002). The first, centered on the transgender women of Barcelona and their straight, female compatriots, is about women who have left men behind. The second, in which two men tend to two comatose female patients in the same hospital, is about men who can’t leave women behind. Julieta, the narrowest case study, is a film about a woman who’s been left behind by a man.
Julieta is based loosely on three short stories by Alice Munro, published in The New Yorker in 2004, and the basic profile of Almodóvar’s Julieta is the same as that of Munro’s Juliet: anxious mother, bereaved former partner, frustrated professional classicist. But whereas these real problems occasion a quiet mystery in the stories, Almodóvar’s film is mysteriously loud from its very first shot—a crimson curtain billows across the frame as the camera zooms out, revealing that the curtain is in fact Julieta’s blouse, its movement generated by her sorrowful heaving. The rest of the film follows from this visual premise: Even when Almodóvar’s women aren’t tramps and vamps, everyday traumas seem to make them brooding and disconsolate. Women’s lives are melodramas, whether buried or not.
Munro’s Juliet has a coolness about her that matches the steady tempo of her stories, which resolve in a kind of non-climax: “Juliet has friends,” Munro writes in the final passage of the third story, “Silence.” “Not so many now—but friends. Larry continues to visit, and to make jokes. She keeps on with her studies.” Almodóvar, to freight his film with tension, makes some adjustments to Munro’s narrative. For instance, he switches out confirmed-bachelor Larry for the sexy, silent Lorenzo, with whom Julieta is planning to move to Portugal. This plan is interrupted by a street-side run-in—in the Munro, this comes toward the close—with Antía’s childhood friend Bea, the one who had rubbed Julieta’s back in the bath, and who recently sighted Antía in Switzerland. Shaken, Julieta upends her entire existence, leaving Lorenzo and decamping for a free unit in the building she once shared with Antía, as though this would reconstitute her. Then the flashbacks begin, along with Julieta’s letter-writing voiceover: “When a former drug addict who is clean for many years slips up once, relapse is fatal,” she says. “Now I have nothing left—only you exist. Your absence fills my life completely, and destroys it.”
Munro sets her stories in British Columbia, where the woods are deep and the skies are gray. Her Juliet “had the look of an alert schoolgirl. Head held high, a neat rounded chin, wide thin-lipped mouth, snub mouth, bright eyes, and a forehead that was often flushed with effort or appreciation.” Almodóvar, who publicly floated and then rejected the idea of an English-language Julieta (he imagined Meryl Streep in the lead role), plays up the Mediterranean heat of his native country. His Julieta, at least before her bath-towel transformation, is a powerhouse of sexual confidence, seducing Antía’s father, Xoan, in the dining car of a train. (Antía is conceived a few hours later, in the passenger car; the encounter doesn’t get that far in the Munro.) Julieta’s profession seems an excuse for a scene in which she explains, to a high-school class, the allure of the siren Calypso. “Who is the most beautiful woman in the world?” she asks. “You,” one of the boys responds. She smiles gamely: “Teachers aren’t supposed to have sex with their students.” He names Kim Basinger instead.
For Almodóvar, there is a kind of haunting that destroys women. It begins with men, and it quickly infects women’s treatment of each other. Antía’s resentment of her mother is the result of Julieta’s attachment to Xoan—this is what led Julieta to confront him over his philandering, which in Antía’s mind makes Julieta complicit in Xoan’s death. Ostensibly, mother and daughter grow closer while living together in Madrid: “With your help, I overcame depression,” Julieta says in voiceover. But what we see of Antía’s adolescence suggests that their rift is impassable. “What if I get ill?” Julieta asks before her daughter leaves for retreat, to which Antía replies, “Mom, don’t blackmail me, please.”
Emotional blackmail is not on the table in Munro’s stories; it’s zealous rationality that is at the core of Juliet’s troubles. As in the Almodóvar film, her daughter, here named Penelope, goes on spiritual retreat around her twentieth birthday, and decides while away to cut her mother off. When Juliet arrives at the retreat center, one of the employees gently breaks the news:
“The spiritual dimension—I have to say this—was it not altogether lacking in Penelope’s life? I take it she did not grow up in a faith-based home.”
“Religion was not a banned subject. We could talk about it.”
“But perhaps it was the way you talked about it. Your intellectual way? If you know what I mean.”
It’s a plausible idea, layered with a complex commentary about professional women: good thinking does not good parenting make.
For Almodóvar, who prizes passion over intellect, Antía’s retreat is a New-Age cover for Oedipal distress: “Antía has chosen her path and you are not on it,” Julieta is told when she tries to pick her daughter up. In a scene not found in the stories, Julieta again happens on Bea, this time at the basketball courts where the girls once played together. There is a flashback: Antía defending the hoop aggressively, wearing a black tank top. Then Bea tells Julieta of a phone call she received from Antía, which came not long after her disappearance: “She told me that she was ashamed of our relationship, and wanted nothing to do with me. That she was a new person who had finally found her way.” With that echo of Julieta’s rejection, Almodóvar twists his psycho-sexual knife: erotic guilt and a mother’s frailty, conflated.
The character of Julieta seems to embody Almodóvar’s parsimony toward women who are made beautiful by men and whose beauty recedes when men go away. Husbands die, daughters disappear, and women are left alone with specters and questions for the specters. The most tender moments in Julieta are those of unselfconscious lovemaking between Julieta and Xoan, entwined on the prow of a ship. It’s only with the help of Lorenzo, her boyfriend, that Julieta is able to resume her life after her daughter’s disappearance. At the height of Julieta’s present-day relapse, she catapults herself into oncoming traffic, and the near-death experience seems to knock some sense into her—she takes Lorenzo back, and suddenly she looks less crazy, her glow restored. After all, she’s having sex again.