Everything about Julieta feels totally Almodóvarian. It’s a family saga that smoothly blends tragedy and levity, with exquisite performances from a company of passionate actresses. It looks carefully ravishing. Many of the director’s abiding themes are here: terminal illness, sudden death, a mother’s love for her child, men hanging about the fringes. And yet it is based on a most un-Hispanic source.
The Julieta of the title was originally Juliet, who features in three interlinked short stories from Runaway, the 2004 collection by Alice Munro. Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature three years ago after a lifetime writing quiet stories that conceal hammer blows. In the originals, the setting is Canada, whose snowy heartland and storm-tossed Pacific coast provide the location for the two deaths on which the plot hinges. In the film, Spain’s chilly winter plateau and the modestly heaving seas serve as less threatening substitutes for British Columbia.
As for the rest, Almodóvar has mapped Munro’s stories onto a timeline which involves a huge chunk of flashback. We first meet Julieta (Emma Suárez) in middle age when she is packing up her apartment in Madrid to begin a new life in Portugal with her partner, a bald intellectual who is slightly less exciting than wallpaper (although, to be fair, the wallpaper in Julieta is a riot). Then in the street she bumps into a young woman who tells her she has recently seen Julieta’s daughter Antía in Italy, where she now has four children. This coup de foudre prompts Julieta to drop her plans and the bald intellectual, and move back into the apartment block where she and Antía once lived. There she embarks on a long letter that explains to the daughter she has not seen for a dozen years the circumstances in which she and Antía’s father met and parted.