Almodóvar returns with his triumphant 20th feature film, Julieta (2016), undeniably rivalling the seductively psychological narratives, enrapturing emotional cartwheeling and evocatively chromatic visuals of his legendary works – from the exhilaratingly dark Live Flesh (1997), to the intensely passionate Broken Embraces (2009) and the melancholically heart-rending Talk to Her (2002) – all while presenting a singularly unique and coolly emotive exploration of family and personal identity.
Inspired by three short stories from the 2004 novel, Runaway, by Canadian author and Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, the film revolves around the eponymous protagonist’s agonizingly mournful experiences, following the dreadfully unexpected loss of her husband Xoan (Daniel Grao) at sea and the puzzling disappearance of her teenage daughter, Antía (Blana Parés), enigmatically recounting the lengthy and arduous journey she embarks on to find her estranged daughter, resulting in significant spiritual and personal revelations.
Starring Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez as the younger and older versions of Julieta respectively, the film opens with a shot of a rich crimson-coloured curtain that is revealed to be the blouse of the film’s protagonist, masking a string of secrets beneath her weary and hardened features, mysteries the 50-year old Julieta furtively shields from her partner, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Her enigma soon ruptures the relationship after a chance encounter with her daughter’s childhood friend, Bea (Michelle Jenner), causing Juliet to become immersed in a whirlwind of past memories that provoke her separation from Lorenzo as she retraces the last 32 years of her life since a chance encounter – her acquaintance with Xoan, Antía’s father.
Signaling his return to psychological dramas and – in Almodóvar’s own words – to the “cinema of woman”, the virtuoso’s claims Julieta’s tone to depart from his other female-oriented dramas, and rightly so. His earlier explorations of the magnetic complexities of the female spirit – akin to the jarringly dark Flower of My Secret (1995), sexually subversive All About My Mother (1999) and poignantly passionate Volver (2006) – posses an emotional melodrama which is utterly subdued in Julieta, with the latter evoking instead a dry, emotional reservedness and dejection, allowing the jarringly clear sentiments of the film to pierce through.
Almodóvar engages in a unique, non-linear plot construction as he leaps back to the early years of Julieta’s life from a lucky encounter on a train with Xoan, to Julieta’s successful attempt to track him down nine months later, followed by the enamoured couple’s union in wedlock and parenthood. Indeed, it is the striking contrast between this period, Julieta’s depressive state of torpor following Xoan’s tragic death – most touchingly embodied by Antía and her best friend Bea lifting the dejected widow out of a bath tub and grooming her – and Julieta’s grappling with her interminable solitude following Antía’s final departure, that most poignantly reflects the cutting sadness of the film.
Julieta acutely embodies the poignant aesthetics and psychological contortions that has come to personify Almodóvar’s films, with the film’s broken maternity and fragile mortality adding a more sombrely evocative edge to Almodóvar’s characteristically melodramatic productions.