There’s a mystery at the heart of Julieta, the latest film from Pedro Almodóvar, but it’s not the sort of mystery with an easy solution. And though Almodóvar fills with film with Hitchcockian gestures and references — including an Alberto Iglesias score that plays like the greatest film music Bernard Herrmann never wrote — the film never pays off a sense of mounting dread, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s easy to see some viewers leaving Julieta frustrated, particularly after a final scene that hints at some grand revelation it doesn’t deliver. But to be frustrated is to risk missing the point. In scene after scene, Julieta’s central character edges toward a greater understanding of the forces that have shaped her life only to realize how little she really knows. The solution to the mystery is more mystery. To suggest anything else would be a lie.
An adaptation of three related Alice Munro stories, Julieta opens in the present with the titular Julieta, played as a middle-aged woman by Emma Suárez, on the verge of moving from Madrid to Portugal with her devoted boyfriend, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Then a chance encounter sets her reeling: Bumping into her daughter’s childhood friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), Julieta learns that Beatriz recently had a chance encounter with Julieta’s daughter, Antía while traveling in the Alps. They exchange a few pleasantries, but Julieta keeps a detail back from Beatriz: She hasn’t seen Antía for 12 years and, until that moment, didn’t know where she was.
Once alone, Julieta starts falling apart. And though she’s not sure if she’ll ever receive it, she begins writing her daughter a long letter, cueing the first of several long flashbacks in which Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte (an actress who’s mostly worked in Spanish television but continues Almodóvar long streak of spotting talent). What follows is a long, lush melodrama of the sort that no one does better than Almodóvar. Where the director’s last film, the fizzy I’m So Excited, was a not-always-successful return to the director’s earlier, funnier films, Julieta is a much more somber work. Julieta’s life plays out against the expected lush interiors, but this is as dark and death-haunted a film as Almodóvar has ever made.
Her story includes her first meeting with Antia’s father Xoan (Daniel Grao) over the course of train journey interrupted by a tragic development. As it unfolds, she reveals their early life together, a relationship that begins while Xoan’s first wife lays in a coma. Echoing Judith Anderson in Rebecca, Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma plays Xoan’s disapproving housekeeper, and like that film, Julieta finds its heroine haunted by a past she had no hand in shaping, and one that might undo her hopes for future happiness.
As the film unfolds, however, it grows more complicated. We learn that Antia’s alienation from her mother has been preceded by other losses, and other forced separations, some of her own making. In moments Almodóvar seems to tease a dramatic twist, but the film’s more interested in exploring the way the past echoes into the present, the ways we keep repeating mistakes without realizing it, and how sometimes the patterns in which we find ourselves swept up are beyond our control.
In an early incarnation, Julieta was to have starred Meryl Streep and been Almodóvar’s first American film. Would that have been drastically different? Most likely, but as fascinating as it is to contemplate the film that might have been, it’s hard to complain about the one we ended up getting. Suárez and Ugarte both do remarkable work in the midst of another complex, unblinking character study told in the language of classic movies and playing out in the sort of striking colors usually found only in dreams.