Director Pedro Almodóvar
Spain (99 mi) 2016 d: Pedro Almodóvar Official site
Almodóvar loves his Hollywood tributes, where films are open love letters to golden eras in Hollywood history, complete with garish colors, floral costumes, exquisite hairstyles, strong performances from all the featured women, emotionally controlled, boiling-under-the-surface melodramas, clever touches and strange narrative twists that catch viewers off guard, where the element of surprise adds significantly to the audience’s enjoyment, often seen leaving the theaters with smiles on their faces. While the knock on Woody Allen is that he doesn’t make films that are as funny as his early works, to a certain extent the same goes for Almodóvar, who has lost his daring indulgences with sex and personal obsessions that used to be a laugh riot, now making safer and more conventional films, where he’s a one man industry in himself, paying attention to the minor details of filmmaking, where his expressive use of lush color is wildly uninhibited, paying particular attention to art direction, wigs, wardrobe, costumes, and make up, where his taste in production design is as exquisite as ever, all of which means the film looks great on the surface. What’s happening under the surface is a little different this time around, drawing from a trilogy of three short stories combined into one, Chance, Soon, and Silence from a 2004 anthology called Runaway written by Canadian Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro, where one of her earlier stories was used by Sarah Polley in her film Away from Her (2006). Following the same titled character of Julieta in different phases of her life, Emma Suárez in middle age and Adriana Ugarte in the character’s youth, the overall dynamic mysteriously blends them both into one, similar to PERSONA (1966), where an impassioned written letter connects the present to the past, drawing the audience in to years of darkness, fueled by a mysterious missing connection, where the film comprises an extended flashback sequence. Examining the periphery of middle class life, it appears happy and cheerful on the outside, though there are unseen scars that have deep-seeded ramifications, where these wounds fester and contaminate Julieta’s emotional stability, sending her into a spiral of guilt and regret, wondering what she could have done differently, blaming herself for the unfortunate turn of events.
At the opening, viewers are caught off guard by the shifting tide of emotions, as Julieta (Suárez) is holding a wrapped artifact as she is about to move from Madrid to Portugal with Lorenzo (Almodóvar regular Darío Grandinetti), but a chance encounter on the street changes her plans, running into a young woman who claims to have recently seen her daughter, now with three kids, which completely alters her equilibrium, suddenly shunning the man in her life for inexplicable reasons, frantically moving to a different apartment in Madrid, shutting out the outside world, and instead sitting down to write an extensive letter to her daughter. It’s only much later in the film that we understand the significance. The letter turns into a diary-like memoir, which comprises the narrative of the film, flashing back thirty years when Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte, a popular classical literature professor, with students no doubt stimulated by her rare beauty, which makes learning about the mythological adventures of Ulysses so much more pleasurable, yet the emphasis in her class is on how Ulysses refused the nymph Calypso’s offer of immortality and instead chose to be human, daring instead to explore the unknown, with the implication being that we each have the same opportunity to discover our own humanity by turning our own lives into a great adventure. As if on cue, Julieta takes an overnight train to Madrid, but feels uncomfortable with an older man in her booth attempting to make conversation, though he’s polite and never crosses the line in social manner, but it’s enough to make her move to the dining car, where she meets a younger man named Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman who immediately captures her attention. But the train comes to a screeching halt, as a passenger, who turns out to be the man in her booth earlier, threw himself from the train in an apparent act of suicide, a tragedy for which she immediately takes blame, wondering how it could have been prevented. Perhaps sensing her changing mood, Xoan makes love to her on the train, where by morning the two are simply fascinated with each another. But before this happens, Almodóvar pays a cheesy tribute to Harlequin romance novels with those exaggerated, highly erotic figures on the cover, where in the emptiness of an endlessly snowy landscape, out the window they see an image of a male stag, like an apparition, where Xoan suggests he’s “looking for a female he can smell in the air.” At another point, he even jokes about being mistaken for a character from a Patricia Highsmith novel, a writer used to elaborate effect in Hitchcock films. Reportedly it was this train sequence that drew Almodóvar to the film, something apparently brewing in his imagination for quite some time, creating a strange mixture of emotions, somewhat evocative of earlier intrigue expressed in Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951).
Originally Almodóvar purchased the rights to Munro’s stories in 2009, where the screenplay was initially written in English, with Meryl Streep agreeing to play the lead in three different periods of her life, aged 20, 40, and 60, with British Columbia locations scouted, in keeping with Munro’s stories, where this was planned to be the director’s English-language debut, but the Spanish director grew uneasy shooting a film in a place he didn’t really know, never really comfortable in the language, so the project was dropped and revisited years later, reworking the story in his native Spain. Months after the train incident, Julieta receives a letter from Xoan inviting her to his small fishing village on the coast, which she accepts eagerly, but upon her arrival, she is deterred by his somewhat sinister housekeeper, none other than Rossy de Palma, who has worked with Almodóvar since his very first film, who apparently resents anyone else’s happiness, whose appearance recalls the malicious intent of Mrs. Danver (Judith Anderson) from Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s first film in America, revealing Xoan is with another woman, where she seems obsessed about sending her away as quickly as possible. Despite the unwelcoming reception, Julieta sticks around and both couldn’t be happier to see one another, where it turns into an idyllic relationship, living in a home overlooking the sea. In a quick stream of events, Xoan reveals he was with a friend, Ava (Inma Cuesta), a local artist who quickly becomes Julieta’s best friend, while she spiritedly announces she’s pregnant, leading to marriage and giving birth to a daughter Antía, whose happy childhood speeds by in breathless fashion. In contrast, when Antía is just two years old, Julieta visits her own parents, where her father (Joaquín Notario) has resigned his post as a teacher to become a farmer, partially to care for his invalid wife (Susi Sánchez), who is suffering signs of dementia. To her discernible disappointment, Julieta’s father has also hired a beautiful young worker to help with the farm and around the home, Sanáa (Mariam Bachir), with whom he is also openly having an affair. One of the more curious scenes of the film is Julieta sleeping in the same bed as her mother, who didn’t recognize her at first, but shows obvious affection by morning, greeting her warmly, happy to feel her presence. Nonetheless, it’s clear her father barely pays any attention to her anymore, where instead Julieta can see she’s slowly wasting away.
The story dramatically shifts to when a teenage Antía (Blanca Parés) is reluctantly sent away to summer camp, though she expresses little interest and needs to be encouraged by her parents. While away from home, however, the irritating housekeeper stirs up more trouble, suggesting Xoan has been sleeping again with Ava, which causes a brief marital flair up, as Julieta makes a beeline to Ava while Xoan takes his fishing boat out to sea. Ominous storm clouds appear in the late afternoon, surprising a few inattentive fishermen, including Xoan, who is lost at sea. At camp, however, Antía meets Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), with the two fast becoming best friends, where they are literally inseparable afterwards, where her exuberant youthful enthusiasm is a stark contrast to her mother’s dour mood, having to report the mysterious death of her father, which leaves Julieta emotionally crestfallen afterwards, as if walking in a coma, where one of the scenes of the film is Antía helping her mother dry her hair after a bath, where her face is covered by a towel, revealing a different actress (Suárez) afterwards, a technique utilized by Buñuel in his final film, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977), using two actresses to play the same role. Interestingly, Almodóvar has never worked with either actress before, so what he gets out of each actress is noticeably different, where Ugarte’s perky sexiness is more vibrant and alive, a literal fountain of youth, while Suárez is more mature, but psychically scarred and wounded, with a dark cloud hanging over her, where she’s constantly feeling that weight. At age 18, Antía announces she’ll be heading into the mountains for a three-month spiritual retreat, where the kicker is she will remain out of communication the entire time, creating a stressful situation for all involved, but Antía thinks her mother’s time alone might be therapeutic for her as well. But by the time she drives into the Pyrenees to pick her up afterwards, she is informed her daughter was spiritually distraught when she arrived and has intentionally disappeared, leaving no forwarding address for her mother. Enraged by this almost blasé explanation, Julieta turns to the police, but to no avail, as she never hears from her daughter again, other than a blank card that arrives on her birthday every year with no returning address. The internalized guilt associated with her loss is simply indescribable, as it’s an emotional abyss one can never crawl out of, feeling forever lost and abandoned, first by her husband, followed by her daughter. What’s left is a shell of a human being, destroying all of her daughter’s belongings, eventually moving back into the same Madrid apartment where they once lived, as it’s the only way Antía would know how to contact her. One of the film’s narrative disconnects is how long it waits to reveal the source of Julieta’s pain, Antía’s disappearance, so by the time we realize the extent of her loss, and the connection back to the opening scene, it barely makes any sense, as there are no hints or clues for such a drastic action, so the full effect of her agonizing despair is never really felt. Nonetheless, Julieta is a wounded soul that grows more apathetic with herself, finding herself adrift, having lost her bearings, where life has little meaning. If not for the reappearance of Lorenzo, she might not have survived on her own, but he helps resuscitate her broken heart, and by the end, there’s actually a resurgence of hope in the air, beautifully transformed by another one of Almodóvar’s priceless choices of music that plays over the end credits, “Si No Te Vas (If You Don’t Leave)” from 1996 by acclaimed ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, SI NO TE VAS - CHAVELA VARGAS - YouTube (4:20).
If you leave, my world is going to end, a world where only you exist. Don’t leave, I don’t want you to leave, because if you leave that’s the very moment I’ll die.