According to a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” But making a masterwork on the subject of loss, a perennial theme in art, may be harder than it looks. The young adulthood and middle age of Julieta, the heroine of Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, are shadowed by death and abandonment, which she does her best to handle gracefully. Almodóvar, for his part, tells her story with his characteristic later-period blend of elegant restraint and keening melodrama. “Julieta” is scrupulous, compassionate and surprising, even if it does not always quite communicate the full gravity and sweep of the feelings it engages.
Julieta is played in her 20s by Adriana Ugarte; in middle age by Emma Suárez. The older version is the first person we see, dressed in bright red and living in a spare, modern Madrid apartment. Julieta abruptly ends a romantic relationship with Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), who seems perfectly nice, and plunges into a sea of reminiscences and regrets. Time spools backward and we encounter her, as Ugarte, with spiky superblond hair and a bright-blue cowl-neck sweater-dress, on a long train ride.
The colors are important because they are part of Almodóvar’s emotional vocabulary. In his films, clothes, wallpaper and furniture are never mere details of production design; they are integral to the world he imagines, a rendering of contemporary Spain filtered through selected works of literature and Hollywood films of the 1950s and accompanied, more often than not, by the lustrous ache of Alberto Iglesias’ music.
Here, as before, the cinematic reference point is Douglas Sirk, whose finely wrought, visually lush weepies have long figured among Almodóvar’s key inspirations. Julieta’s experiences — love, marriage, motherhood, small-town life — are drawn from a trilogy of linked short stories by the Canadian writer (and Nobel laureate) Alice Munro. At first, this may seem an odd match of author and filmmaker. Munro’s northern world is a place of drab, wintry tones and buttoned-up emotions, a far cry from Almodóvar’s empire of passions.
But both artists are attuned to the inner lives of women in societies inclined to take them for granted. Both have an eye for the swerves and accidents — the kinks of fate and the tangles of desire — that so often determine the destinies and undermine the intentions of individuals. Munro’s characters are, as often as not, women on the edge of something — maybe not a nervous breakdown (not really their bag), but an adventure, a big decision, a moment of belated self-discovery, a lifetime of rue.
“Julieta” has all of that, and arranges its plot not only in a straight chronological line but also according to a pattern that is at once loose and intricate. Young Julieta, a student of classics on her way to a teaching job, falls for a fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao) and goes to live with him in a small coastal town. They raise a daughter, Antia, amid ocean breezes and under the watchful eye of a busybody (the Almodóvar fixture Rossy de Palma). Julieta befriends Ava (Inma Cuesta), a former lover of Xoan’s, and Ava’s sculptures become part of the film’s cabinet of talismans and symbols.
Julieta’s bliss is shattered by a series of tragedies that seem to have been foretold at other moments in her life. The death of a near-stranger is echoed by a later accident much closer to home, and Julieta’s alienation from her father prefigures her eventual estrangement from Antia. The mother-daughter bond, fierce and smothering and complicated, lies at the heart of the film, and it is after Antia’s departure that “Julieta” finds its deepest, richest tones.
Suárez suffers with a dignity reminiscent of Bette Davis and other great screen heroines of the past, even as she surrenders to a longing that borders on mania. In a letter to her absent daughter, she likens maternal love to an addiction, and the second half of her story follows the familiar, agonizing stages of recovery, relapse and at least partial or potential redemption.
If the rest does not rise to the level of Almodóvar’s melodramatic masterworks — “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education” or “Volver” — “Julieta” is nonetheless a worthy and welcome addition to his canon, the double portrait of a woman perpetually on the verge of understanding who she is.