Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is a sweeping story of the struggles presented by both commitment and infidelity. Presented as the story of a mother’s life as narrated in the form of a letter sent to her estranged daughter, we travel through the Spain of the eighties, nineties and millennium, observing all the ways that humanity finds to cheat its way out the promises they feel don’t count anymore. Or those they feel were never quite made in the first place.
Julieta meets her child’s father on an overnight train. Alone in her compartment she fends off the unwanted advances of an older man, finding security in conversation with a young fisherman in the dining carriage. Later, after the train leaves a station, the brakes screech. The man found his way onto the tracks. Unable to sleep that night she makes love to the fisherman; the camera focuses not on them but on their reflection in the window. Their bodies seem eaten by the presence of the absent man neither is willing to acknowledge.
Almodóvar, and his cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, know the power of images. The film is full of them. Bold colours, compositions, thrown up on the screen but don’t mistake him for an aesthete. After the genre experimentations of The Skin I Live In and I’m So Excited! he returns to his one tried and true staple, the women led drama. And the women in this are great, Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte share the title role and both do great work, embodying this character as the years pass. Neither feels like they own her, the character being shared between the two. As we saw in Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, it is all too easy for an older, more experienced, actor to hold a character hostage from their co-star (not to say either Marin’s or Gainsbourg’s performances were bad, just divergent). That happily does not happen here; the point at which the performer changes being another of the film’s Images. Capital I, Images.
Based on a trio of short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro the script does a good job of translating the action to Spain, however less so of filling the gaps present in the source material. Some moments feel abrupt and disjointed, the flow of events lurching sometimes clumsily forwards. And, while I’d be a fool to critique the production design’s recreation of a changing Europe everything, despite the drastic changes in the plot, looks uniformly beautiful. Characters in breakdown live in their immaculate homes, perhaps an artistic statement, it never quite worked for me.
What struck me most going through it is, in spite of the sometimes genteel tone, it never felt exploitative of its characters. Gosh, a humanist European drama. I know. But many tales of suffering feel like retribution, the end of that Greek tragedy where the protagonist must meet their fall. They suffer and we, in our anguish, are edified. Julieta allows its characters their faults and their grief and welcomes them back for another word. Perhaps there is redemption for the cheaters after all.