The lush red fabric, velvety and rich, that fills the screen at the beginning of Julieta precedes the “Un film de Almodóvar” credit, but almost renders it unnecessary; that’s the kind of opening imagery that could only belong to this filmmaker, whose films are flush with bright colors and big emotions. The broad expressiveness of his previous pictures would seem to make him an odd match with the modest writings of Alice Munro, whose stories “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” were the inspiration for Almodóvar’s screenplay. But at a talk following the film’s New York Film Festival press screening, the filmmaker said he’s been drawn to her work for years.
“I read them like ten years ago. At that point, I was a follower of Munro’s writing,” he explained, and was interested in how, “in this specific collection, Runaway, the three stories were part of this collection, but for the first time, it was the same protagonist, Juliet. And I was really very hooked.”
His adaptation concerns Julieta (Emma Suárez), an older woman who is preparing to move to Portugal with her kind boyfriend. But one day, she runs into an old friend of her daughter Antía, an innocuous encounter that’s framed and scored like a thriller; we discover that Julieta and her daughter are long estranged, and this reminder of that painful separation turns her entire world upside down. Desperate to work out her unhappiness, Julieta sits down to pen a lengthy, letter-like journal, telling her daughter the entire story of her conception, their life together, and their painful split; we see that past played out by her younger self (Adriana Ugarte).
“It was pretty hard, because it seems the three stories belong to the same character,” Almodóvar said. “Munro put this Juliet in three different ages, but really the three surface stories are completely independent. So the first thing was just to see how the material will be in my hands, to try and make a unique story, is how I started.”
The most obvious adjustment to the material was in its setting; Almodóvar bought the film rights to the stories clear back in 2009, and spent some time attempting to make it his English-language debut, with Meryl Streep playing the character at all ages. But he couldn’t make it work to his satisfaction, so he put the project on hold, eventually relocating it to Spain, with two actresses splitting the role. (The way he makes the transition between them onscreen is one of the film’s cleverest touches.)
But more importantly, it required an adjustment to his style. “I have to thank Alice Munro – she inspired me to a different way of storytelling. For the first time, I wanted to be very austere, very restrained.” He joined the audience in laughter at the thought. “And that was a huge adventure for me, as a storyteller… I tried to make a drama, not a melodrama, which is my natural inclination. I tried to control myself.”
And that he does – to a degree. One of Almodóvar’s most enchanting qualities as a filmmaker is the way he manages to both kid the conventions of melodrama, and make maximum use of them; he has his rich, ornately decorated red velvet cake, and eats it too. There is some of that here – watch how he pulls in the strings, the gathering clouds, and the breaking waves before a moment of tragedy – and he has some fun with the dour housekeeper/killjoy character (Rossy de Palma, doing her best Judith Anderson). And he certainly doesn’t downplay his customary eroticism, as the hungry intensity of his central couple’s attraction powers much of the first act.
But the picture is ultimately a testament to the confidence of his filmmaking. He breezily tells a story that spans decades, changing out cast members freely yet effortlessly putting across the intimacy of this family and the low-key tensions that ultimately tear them apart. He seems to enjoy the challenges presented by the material – playing out the daughter’s absence in a series of tragic tableaux rather than crying jags, and arriving at a conclusion that hints at the possibilities of forgiveness and healing, and leaves them in the air. Julieta is the best kind of movie from an old(er) master, one that resonates with the storytelling powers they’ve accumulated over time, yet reveals that they still have the capacity to surprise us.
Julieta screens this week at the New York Film Festival. It’s slated for U.S. release on December 21.