If Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In was “a horror story without screams or frights,” then Julieta is a thriller without thrills or tension. The story gradually builds to a mystery surrounding a disappearance whose cause is hinted at, but never properly explained or solved. Gone are any traces of the camp, naughtiness, or lightness that defined so much of the Spaniard’s work. All that is left is pain, trauma, and tragedy. It’s one of Almodóvar’s most frustrating films. But for all these reasons, it’s also one of my favorites of his entire career.
Based on three short stories by Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro, the film is constructed largely in flashbacks as Julieta (Emma Suárez) writes a journal detailing her life for her estranged daughter Antía (Blanca Parés). Much like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, it is a film told largely in multiple sections with different actors portraying the same characters in different parts of their lives. The first charts Julieta’s tempestuous romance with a rugged fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao) that she meets one night while on a train. The second part, years after their marriage and the birth of Antía, sees Xoan die in a fishing accident after storming off in anger after an argument over his frequent infidelities with a local artist named Ava. The third takes place when an 18 year old Antía disappears following a three month “spiritual retreat” in the mountains. Having long nursed a grudge against Julieta over her role in her father’s death, that grudge turned into a self-loathing that led to her “finding faith.” Said “faith” must have involved a literal interpretation of Matthew 10:34-37: she cuts all ties with her surviving family and rushes off to Switzerland to start a new life. After years of agony and fruitless searching, Julieta resigns herself to a childless future. Nearly ten years later, her search is reignited after encountering one of Antía’s school friends. Here is where the film proper starts; everything afterwards is Julieta putting the broken pieces of her life back together.
The one flaw of Julieta is its soundtrack. From what has been gathered, the film boasts an original score from the distinguished composer Alberto Iglesias. But for the life of me, I had to stop my copy of the film several times and replay certain sections because I was convinced that the music I was hearing was lifted directly from other movies. There’s an early sequence of Julieta walking down the street featuring music that sounds almost exactly like Miles Davis’ crooning score for Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), in particular the number Julien dans l’ascenseur. Later in the film, the music that plays during a scene where Julieta and Xaon quarrel after sending Antía to a summer camp sounded like the opening ominous bellows from the main theme of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver (1976). Maybe I’m connecting dots that don’t exist. And if that’s the case, then I would like to preemptively apologize to Mr. Iglesias.
Perhaps due in large part to its origins, Julieta is one of Almodóvar’s most literary films, rich in metaphor and symbolism. Nowhere is this more on the nose than a scene where—shortly after falling in love with Xoan—Julieta, a substitute teacher in a high school, performs exegesis on the Homeric Greek text of The Odyssey, explaining how the original language highlighted Odysseus’ lust for the sea and adventure. This sequence seems more at home in the likes of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come (2016) than it does in this film. Likewise, Almodóvar’s trademark phantasmagoric color palettes and production design are significantly tuned down so as to better serve the story. But Almodóvar still couldn’t help himself from injecting the film with a series of odd, near-surreal images that stun the viewer with their almost unnatural beauty: the film opens on a set of closed red curtains shaped suspiciously like a vulva; a slow-motion shot of a stag racing alongside the train where Julieta and Xoan meet; a series of terracotta male nudes occupying Ava’s workshop; a glimpse of the stormy sea framed through a set of living room windows. These all elevate the film from simple realism to quasi-epic poetry.