This emotionally-charged portrait of the human condition balances hope, humor and sensitivity, all delivered by a superbly talented and primarily female ensemble.
Based on stories from Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway, Julieta charts the biography of one woman played by two newcomers to Pedro Almodóvar’s cinema – Emma Suárez, as Julieta in middle age, and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self.
Structured as a flashback, the complex narrative takes in a dreamlike night of passion, a love triangle, subsequent tragedy and Julieta’s retreat into depressive isolation.
Rather than melodrama, Almodóvar has said he was after something more austere this time – “pure drama”.
“Not that my other films are impure,” Almodóvar explains in Spanish (he skips in this interview between his native language and slightly rusty English, sometimes turning the standby interpreter beside him). “‘Impurity’ has a moral meaning in Spanish, which I don’t like. I just wanted much more restraint.”
His intention was to strip out the familiar traces of his style: “Nobody sings, no one talks about cinema and there’s no humour. I had to force myself there; sometimes during rehearsals the odd comic line would come up, which was a relief for the actors. But after the rehearsals, I decided, no humour. I thought it was the best way to tell such a painful story. And also, you know, it’s fantastic that in my 20th film I could make a change. I mean, this is very welcome.”
Almodóvar had hoped to adapt Munro’s stories for some time and even tipped his viewers a wink by sneaking a copy of Runaway into a scene in The Skin I Live In. Intended to be his first English-language film, his adaptation, originally titled Silence, was to star Meryl Streep. In the end, however, he balked at working in English, and at the Canadian cultural specificity of Munro’s world, and set the story closer to home – Madrid, Galicia, the Pyrenees. “It’s not a faithful adaptation, but once I moved it to Spain, I had to make it really mine.”
Julieta is both raw and beautiful. Its centerpiece is a mother’s desperate desire to reconnect with her estranged daughter.
A haunting portrayal of guilt’s lingering quality and just how long it takes for wounds to heal, this emotionally-charged portrait of the human condition balances hope, humor and sensitivity, all delivered by a superbly talented and primarily female ensemble.
He loves Munro’s stories, he says, because “there’s so much about her that I identify with – she’s a housewife who writes” (in recent interviews, he often refers to himself today as “a housewife”).
The essence of Munro’s writing, he says, is “a great strangeness. What I like best about her is something that’s impossible to translate to cinema, her commentaries around the main incidents – minor comments – but they become the most important thing in the story. At the end, I feel I know less about the character than at the beginning. For me, that’s a very positive thing.”
In the end, Almodóvar decided to have his protagonist played by two very different performers, a choice that yields a moving reveal when a towel is removed from Julieta’s head after a bath to reveal that Ugarte has been replaced by Suárez, visibly 20 years older. “I don’t trust ageing makeup,” says Almodóvar. “It pulls me out of a film. When you use an actor who has aged, there’s something that you can’t imitate – the eyes, the way she looks at things, the rhythm of walking, the body language.”
This coup de cinéma is all the more poignant for viewers who may remember Emma Suárez from the 90s as the angelic-looking lead of Julio Medem’s surreal existential dramas The Red Squirrel and Earth. Two decades on, her looks and acting style have acquired a stately severity that is absolutely compelling and all the more moving for being so contained.
As for the younger Julieta, she’s played with hyper-alert energy by Adriana Ugarte, the star of a hugely popular couture-themed TV series, El tiempo entre costuras (literally, The Time Between Stitches). The director cast her purely because she was superb in her audition, he says; he has no interest in Spanish TV. “For me, it isn’t a reference. I can’t judge the actors in Spanish TV fiction. I mean, they are… brrr! Poor things!” he laughs. “They don’t have time to do a good job.”
Almodóvar didn’t plan on casting two leading ladies to play the same role, but as the script evolved, he couldn’t resist. “I was inspired by Luis Buñuel’s The Obscure Object of Desire, where two actresses played the same character at different ages,” the director said at the film’s press conference. “One is a free spirit, and one has experienced life: it adds to the wealth of the character. And I liked the collaboration.”
Almodóvar is quick to share credit with the females who surround him. “This film was made with six hands,” he explained with obvious pleasure.
Even the script for Julieta began with a woman: the well-known Canadian short story writer, Alice Munro. Almodóvar liked Munro’s “less is more” approach. “Her work contains a great deal of mystery,” he said. “When I get to the end of one of her stories, I feel like I know less than when I began to read it. This is the most exciting feeling for me.”
He also liked Munro’s “marvelous train scenes,” which reminded him of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, so he bought the rights to three stories from her prize-winning book Runaway and turned them into a screenplay.
“In the first draft of script, the film was in English, and set in New York—as opposed to the original Canadian setting—but then I began to have doubts.” Here, too, women helped him. “I owe everything to my assistants, Lola, Barbara and Augustine. They made me reanalyze the first draft. A Spanish family is very different from an American or Canadian family; it’s a totally different culture. In America, the mother knows at some point children will become independent and leave home, that they’ll see their children very little. But in Spain, we never break ties with family members, even after they leave home, and that makes this story even more poignant.”
Almodóvar admits that he is “not very faithful in adaptation.”
“When I read something great, I want to explore why it moved me,” he explained, “and inevitably, the story evolves. The reality here is that Munro’s book gave me a chapter, but then I took charge. Aside from the series of sequences that take place in the train, her story really became my own.”
Once again, it was the female character in Munro’s stories who moved him. “With this film, I came back to a place I’ll never leave altogether: the feminine universe. I’ve done lots of movies about mothers, but this one, Julieta, is the most vulnerable of all, with the least capacity to fight. As a scriptwriter, I wanted to turn her into a victim of losses that sap her power as a person until she is almost a zombie, walking the streets without hope or direction.”
That’s not to say that Almodóvar is methodical to the point of science; to the contrary, his actors say he likes to go with the flow and try many different approaches—without losing his original vision. Each of his cinematic visions is marked by a great deal of thoughtfulness, intense dedication and, above all, heart.
Almodóvar wants his collaborators to be as inspired by a project as he is. With that goal in mind, he provides references that both he and his actors study as preparation for the film.
In the case of Julieta, the list was both academic and staggering: Joan Dideon’s book The Year of Magical Thinking; Emmanuel Carrère’s book Other Lives But Mine; Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours; and Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ‘51. All of them explorations of grief and loss that Almodóvar thought would help his actors plumb what he described as “that region of loneliness, the anguish of abandonment felt by Julieta.”
And then came the rehearsals: long, intense, and discarded on the first day of shooting.
Ugarte laughs at the memory. “I thought I understood Julieta, but then we started shooting and I realized that Pedro was reinventing the character every day,” she said. “He was super clear and direct, but he always wanted more. At first, you feel really lost, even terrified, but then it gets really stimulating. You build trust, you learn to forget your ego. He’s not just an excellent director; he’s a master of sensitivity. He’s like a father.”
Almodóvar’s films are supremely personal. A great deal of his inspiration comes from real life—”a chance encounter, a nightmare I had, or my own fears when I’m awake,” he said.
He revealed that the vivid colors that fill his films are an instinctive rebellion against his own mother, who always wore black. “Black can be a glamorous, sophisticated color—unless it’s imposed on a child by his mother. Then it’s not just a form of mourning, it’s a curse!”
The director also admitted that he identifies with his characters, even though they are female. “I identify with them all, for the best and worst reasons,” he said. “They all represent me in one way or another. After all, I’m 60-something years old. I don’t feel like an old man, but I’m getting there, and I understand her maturity. I never would have been able to make this film before now, but because of my age, I have a better understanding of fate, of the tragedies that can happen.”
Julieta was a surprising departure from what Almodóvar calls his “usual melodrama.”
“My films have always been so baroque: lots of pop songs, exaggerated colors, characters with strong personalities who never hide their feelings at all, the opposite of a Puritan attitude,” he said. “But here, with Julieta, I found myself creating a drama that was very restrained. Temperate, almost somber.”
He couldn’t even find music to fit the film. “I’ve worked with the musician Alberto Iglesias for over two decades, but when I showed him a rough cut of Julieta, he had the same reaction I did,” the director remembered. “He said, ‘I don’t think it needs any music at all!’ We wound up very restrained, with just the one song in the end credits, where the lyrics felt as if they could be part of the dialogue at that final moment.”
Suarez, who plays the older Julieta, understood. “The beauty of Pedro’s work is that it reflects not just his life, but society,” she said. “The side of society that we rarely see, the female side. His films help us question ourselves, they help us grow as individuals. It’s so important that that type of cinema exists.”
Julieta also reflects his personal mood. “In the last three years, I’ve suffered physical pain and great solitude.” If he had written the script in a different decade, he says, he could imagine Julieta going out, meeting people in the streets of Madrid. “She would be involved in others’ problems. Now it was very easy for me just to talk about her kind of solitude. I know a lot about solitude.”
He has often talked about solitude in the past; in one book of interviews, he recalls feeling isolated as a 10-year-old because other kids weren’t interested in discussing Ingmar Bergman. “In this case,” he says, “solitude is something I choose. Anyway, you have to experience loneliness for this sort of work.”
How so – because he needs to be alone to write?
“It’s a mixture of everything,” he shrugs. “It’s a mixture of time passing, of getting older, the fact that going out is much less exciting. I’m at an age when everything is less exciting and I have to look for inspiration much more inside myself and my home than outside.”