Taken in combination, I’m So Excited and Julieta feel like something of a palette cleanser before the next stage in Almodovar’s career. On the one hand, I’m So Excited felt like a way of distilling and blowing off the quirkiness that has gradually accumulated around Almodovar in the new millennium, along with the way in which that quirkiness has been equated with queerness. More than any film he has released since the 1980s, I’m So Excited felt defiantly, tastelessly and gratuitously gay, as if to dissociate itself from the tactful, delicate and euphemistic queerness that has become such a hallmark of Almodovar’s late style. With all that campiness and gayness out of the picture, Julieta initially seems like a return to his more serious recent work – and that is how it has been acclaimed by critics at large – but in many ways this feels as different from his recent string of films as I’m So Excited, even if it appears to resemble them more at first glance. Once again, we’re back in the realm of melodrama, and female relationships, but there is a new sombreness, austerity and grittiness this time around that makes it feel like we are starting to glimpse something like Almodovar’s late style. While melodrama often speaks through “excessive style” it also speaks just as eloquently through “functional style” – or, rather, speaks by pairing excess and functionality in striking ways. That’s very much the case here, since both Almodovar’s regard for compressed and hyperbolic narrative moments and his disregard for conventional and linear narrative continuity are taken to a new level, making for a film that feels less anxious to insist upon its originality, or its directorial signature, than many of his recent efforts, but for that very reason feels original in a new way as well.
In part, that is because this represents Almodovar’s first adaptation of English source material since 1995’s Live Flesh – and very nearly represented his first English film full stop. Inspired by Alice Munro’s 2004 short story collection Runaway, Almodovar apparently envisaged the film in 2009 as a Meryl Streep vehicle set in Munro’s native Canada. Unable to satisfy himself with the location scouts and uncertain about his ability to direct actresses in English, however, he shelved it before picking it up again in the mid-10s and transplanting the location back to Spain. As it now stands, Julieta is an adaptation of three specific stories in Munro’ collection – “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” – all of which are wrapped around the story of one character, Julieta, played by Emma Suarez as an older women and Adriana Ugarte as a younger woman, as she reflects back upon her life and her relationships with her husband, Xoan (Daniel Grao) and her daughter Ava (Inma Cuesta). Like all of Almodovar’s films, it’s doesn’t really lend itself to plot summary or synopsis, except to say that most of the story is told in retrospect, with Julieta reflecting upon her life as a teacher of classics in the 1980s, her first meeting with Xoan on a train, their subsequent courtship and marriage and, finally, her relocation to his home town on the Ferrol estuary, where she gives birth to Ava. As Almodovar’s dissatisfaction with the initial location scouting in the United States might suggest, it’s a story that is very much driven by place and changes in place, with many critical scenes occurring against epic windows and mobile vistas that extend and distract the narrative in lateral directions but also seem to function as synecdoches for the cinematic classicism so integral to Almodovar’s melodramatic style.
I saw Julieta as one of my last films at the Sydney Film Festival, which it bookended with Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, another film based on three short stories. Like Reichardt, Almodovar doesn’t exactly adopt Munro’s anthology as an anthology, but nor does he completely dissociate the stories either, creating an emergent and elusive sense of focus that syncs up quite naturally with his own distinctive narrative style, as well as providing it with the push it needs to graduate into a more mature and sombre kind of late work. For while Almodovar tends to be acclaimed first and foremost as a visual stylist and a master colourist, it is his narrative mechanics that have always engaged and surprised me the most. Usually, it takes me nearly the whole film to get into his films, and yet when I finally do they resonate with me for days. So too with Julieta, whose focus and trajectory is something you almost piece together in retrospect, at the last minute, in much the same way as the full import and mood of a short story anthology only emerges when you have closed the book.
Of course, that’s not to say that this is not a visually remarkable film, yet while Almodovar’s colours are still bright and bold they have a new kind of simplicity and austerity, with the most dynamic outfits and tonal combinations reserved for a catatonic mother who has been abandoned by her husband and carer. This image has circulated quite widely in early promotions for the film, presumably because its visually arresting quality suggests some kind of seamless continuity with Almodovar’s 00s films – and an equally definitive break with I’m So Excited – as well as a sunnier and more carefree film than what Julieta actually delivers. Almodovar’s colour schemes have always seemed to hover at the verge of total abstraction, and in Julieta that abstraction feels as if it has come to pass, creating a new kind of intensity and focus but also a new comfort with peremptory and expendable gestures, not unlike Henri Matisse’s movement from painting to collaging in the last and brightest stage in his career. Just as Matisse’s late paper works played as a kind of abstraction and dissection of painting, so Julieta plays as something of an abstraction and dissection of melodrama, imbuing Almodovar’s colour anchors with a new kind of inexorability but also a new kind of luminosity, a reservation that is more and more comfortable with colour and emotion simply speaking for itself.
As a result, all Almodovar’s unusual narrative devices are on display as well, with Julieta – and all the other women in the film – always seeking to return to some kind of paternal figure for reassurance, continuity and protection only to find that patriarch at the epicentre of a seres of preposterous and accelerating tragedies that sweep them off their feet before they have a moment to compose themselves. For these women, life is so tragic that tragedy itself is somewhat quotidian as well, creating abrupt shifts between pathos and bathos, that seem to thwart continuity in any kind of traditional sense. Indeed, it’s a style that queries continuity – or what we might describe as traditional narrative continuity – as a kind of patriarchal effect, a reminder that most tactfully and aesthetically judicious narrative structures are in fact an affirmation of the nuclear family structure as ultimate arbiter of taste and judgement. In order to avoid that continuity but also avoid a mere collection of situations – particularly important when adapting a series of short stories – Almodovar instead opts for overdetermined moments of significance: coincidences, correspondences and resemblances that forever hint at some kind of intensified continuity, but one that remains inaccessible or incomprehensible to his female protagonists. To paraphrase Kafka, continuity is everywhere in Almodovar’s films, but just not for us, creating an intensely melodramatic narrative sensibility that always takes me by surprise just because Almodovar exhibits so much of the tact, judiciousness and aesthetic refinement that we usually associate with “realistic” continuity in the first place.
As with so many of Almodovar’s earlier films, then, Julieta doesn’t finally supplant realism with melodrama so much as present melodrama as a heightened form of realism, a reminder that even the most conventional realist narrative is build on a bedrock of melodrama or proceeds by artificially excluding melodrama. Having burned off all the preposterous, fantastic and irrealistic energy that often circulates around melodrama with I’m So Excited, Almodovar now returns to what might be described as the inherent plainness of melodrama, thanks in large part to the plainness of Munro’s prose style. Pardoxically, it is the very austerity of Munro’s writing that allows Almodovar such melodramatic flourishes, as well as what ensures that even his most flamboyant reaches have a new kind of plainness to them as well, making for a film that is somehow even more melodramatic than anything in his most recent career but more matter-of-fact about it as well. Taken in combination, that creates an emergent, brooding sense of unease that is almost Hitchcockian at moments – the sense that reality might not be quite where we left it – especially with the addition of Bernard Herrmann-esque score from Alberto Iglesias, and while that never quite approaches the out-and-out terror of The Skin I Live In, it is all the more eerie and resonant for that. As much as the film revolves around Munro’s key plot points, Almodovar often dwells on the languid, languorous spaces within and between Munro’s stories, just as Julieta does herself, finding time to linger in even the most melodramatic scenarios in what often feels like the pose of a flaneuse: walking, waiting and watching for something to disclose the meanings of the tragedies that occur so rapidly in her life that they seemed to arrive, fully-formed, in the past tense. One of the major hallmarks of Almodovar’s melodramatic style is that major events occur suddenly and are announced suddenly, but in ways that makes their import far more open-ended and unspoken than would occur in a conventional realist narrative. In Julieta, that suddenness is more pronounced than ever before – to the point where the film almost plays as series of bathetic anticlimaxes – but so is that sense of open-ended resonance and ramification. By the time we arrive at the end of the film it feels more like the beginning, and that has always been the genius of Almodovar’s melodramas: to make us glimpse a level of female suffering that exceeds any narrative mechanism that might contain or conclude it.