I’ve had this DVD hanging around for ages now. It was part of my Xmas intake, one of those films bought, on a whim, a flash of curiosity and, yes, in response to an attractive cover image. Like my other Spanish film, Volver, it is a work written and directed by Pedro Almodovar and, like Volver, it was a film that in the end thoroughly absorbed me despite an early stage of wondering just what the film was suposed to be.
Julieta stars both Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte in the title role, playing the same character in different phases of her life. The film is a character piece, and both women are superb in their roles, despite each developing their character independently.
The film starts in Madrid. Julieta, a teacher of Classical Literature aged about fifty, is packing to leave for Portugal with her partner, art critic Lorenzo Gentile (Dario Grandenetti): she doesn’t plan to come back. But the same day she bumps into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), the former inseperable childhood friend of Julieta’s daughter Antia. Julieta has not seen Antia for twelve years. Apparently, she lives in Switzerland and is married with three children.
As a consequence of this encounter, Julieta abandons her plan to leave Spain, much to the surprise and hurt of Lorenzo. She rents an apartment in the same block where she brought Antia up, in the hope that she may one day hear from her daughter. Whilst there, she begins a long letter, so long it extends into a second journal, explaining herself, her life and her love for Xoan, Antia’s father (Daniel Grao).
Thus far we have been watching Emma Suarez but now the primary role switches to Adriana Ugarte. The two actresses are perfectly believable as the same character, Ugarte being a younger, fresher version of Suarez. Her part begins on a train where an older man sits down opposite her and tries to strike up a conversation: she runs away to the dining car where she meets the young, bearded fisherman Xoan. The journey is interrupted by an emergency stop, just after leaving a station. It is the older man who has committed suicide. Julieta feels a freezing guilt for his death, but Xoan comforts and reassures her annd the pair end up having sex, from which Julieta becomes pregnant with Antia.
Having received a letter from Xoan just as her six-month contract as a substitute teacher ends, Julieta goes to visit him in his home near the mouth of the Ferrol estuary, in Galicia, on Spain’s northern coast. She arrives the day after the funeral of Xoan’s wife, who has been in a coma for six years: Xoan is visiting his lifelong friend and occasional bed-mate Ava. Marian, the housekeeper (Rossy de Palma), clearly unsympathetic, tries to get rid of her but Julieta stays until Xoan returns. they go to bed together.
The relationship blossoms into a permanent one. Antia is born. At age 2, Julieta takes her to visit her parents. Her mother is bedridden, suffering from Alzheimer’s, her father, a former school teacher who hasretired early to farm, is sleeping with the maid, much to Julieta’ disapproval.
This is not merely a piece of the film’s tapestry, it is a foreshadowing. By age 9, Antia is aseager to fish as her father. At 12, she goes away to a summer camp where she meets and befriends Beatriz. Julieta has succeeded in getting rid of Marian by now, but the housekeeper is still a poisonous bitch, letting Julieta know that Xoan still screws Ava every now and then, when Julieta’s not there.
A quarrel follows. Julieta refuses to speak to Xoan who runs away by going fishing. Unfortunately, a storm blows up and he is killed. Julieta does not let Antia know: Zoan is cremated and his ashes poured into the sea whilst Antia continues her holiday. Indeed, when she begs to be allowed to go to Madrid with Bea’s family, Julieta still doesn’t tell her her father’s dead. Only when that break is over does she break the news.
Julieta enters into a long depressive fugue during which Antia easily gets her to live in Madrid, in the apartment block. She and Bea look after Julieta, who is completely numb and helpless. There’s a very clever moment when the two girls help Ugarte out of a bath in which she’s clearly lain until it’s gone cold, wrap her in towels, cover her head to towel her hair partly dry, and when the towel is lifted it’s Suarez to play out the film.
Though Julieta gradually improves, she’s still emotionally dependent upon Antia. Bea has gone to New york to study and Antia goes on a three month spiritual retreat. When julieta goes to collect her, she has already left, some time previously, and the woman in charge won’t give out her whereabouts. It’s a chilling scene, less for Julieta’s despair than the cold implacability of the other woman: Antia has chosen her path, involving a faith she’s never had, and it doesn’t include her mother. There is no explanation, nothing but rigidity. Antia is right to do what she is doing and there is no sympathy for Julieta, only an implied condemnation that she does not immediately embrace this as a wonderful thing for Antia: how dare Julieta think of herself at all?
The film sweeps on, quietly building to the situation we have seen at the start of the story. Julieta hunts desperately for Antia. For three years she makes a birthday cake and hopes for contact but all she gets is an unsigned greeting card after which she throws the untouched cake in the bin. Then she snaps, obliterates every trace of Antia, moves iout, tries to obliterate her from her memories.
Ava suffers from multiple sclerosis. Shortly before her death, she confesses to Julieta that Antia knew about the quarrel, from Marian, and blamed her mother, Ava and also herself, for having been happy at camp with her beloved Bea when her father was dead.
At Aa’s funeral, Julieta meets Lorenzo. They become a couple, though the inference is that they do not live together. Julieta is happy, but the issue of her daughter never leaves her mind. We already know that Lorenzo is aware of something she’s held back, but that he’s respected that.
Julieta is once again in a spiral of despair. Sitting at an outdoor basketball court, watching two girls playing, she has visions of Antia and Bea doing the same. By a fantastic coincidence, the girls are nieces of Bea, who is sat at the other side of the court. She talks to Julieta, about her break-up with Antia, and how unpleasant it was. The girls had more than a friendship, but antia was smothering and Bea went to New York to escape her. Her last contact was by phone, Antia cutting her off angrily. Their chance encounter at Lake Como saw Antia trying to avoid speaking to her, pretending to be someone else, until Bea forced her into acknowledgement.
Still more depressed, julieta sees Lorenzo at a traffic crossing. She walks into the road, intent only on him, and is knocked down. when she comes to, he is looking after her in hospital. He clears her apartment for her. There is an unopened letter addressed to Julieta: we recognise it as Antia’s handwriting but he doesn’t. When Julieta sees it, she cannot believe it. More so, there is a return address on the back.
Antia has three children, a boy and two girls. she named the boy Xoan after her father. He has died aged 9, drowned in a river. Antia finally understands how her mother felt at the loss of both her Xoan and, again impliedly, Antia.
We never meet Antia except in her adolescence. The film ends with Lorenzo driving Julieta to meet her daughter again. He has the final word: when Julieta says that Antia had not invited her to visit, he replies that she doesn’t have the right. The word ‘yet’ lies in implication.
This is a slow-moving film, taking it’s subject quietly. Though we see a lot of her in the middle of the film, Antia is ultimately the great absence that Almodovar very intelligently doesn’t address. What motivates her is left for the audience to determine, from what we see. Clues are given that might be enough in themselves but which are really only the straight bits round the edge of the puzzle: the centre is missing.
In a way, Julieta is that centre. We know very little of her before Adriana Ugarte appears on that train with her blonde hair in a semi-spikey urchin cut. Her life is one of chances, but then isn’t that the same for all of us? Her father is cheating on her mother, her partner is cheating on her, her natural and immediate resentment leads to his death, though his own immaturity in running away contributes heavily to that. Her daughter becomes her world, she is dependent upon her, even as she is (understandably) oblivious of what is now the most important relationship of Antia’s life.
What changes Antia? Is it simply spirituality? Severing her ties with the mother she blames for her father’s death, severing her ties with the girl who’s been her lover? All of these things cluster around the edges of the story, Almodovar keeping them at a distance. His study is loss, isolation, grief, despondency. Julieta is not the architect of her life but it’s helpless subject, a cork bobbing on a stream. And we are left to make up our own minds as to whether her reunion with Antia will mend or tear her fragile existence.
Apparently, the film was going to be made in America, set and shot in Vancouver, with Meryl Streep in the title role,plying a character at ages 20, 40 and 60. Streep was very enthused, but ultimately Almodovar felt uncomfortable at shooting outside Spain, and did not feel up to writing the film in English.
Interesting as that version would have been, in the end I prefer what we have here, and was very glad I’d bought it. That makes two Pedro Almodovar films I’ve been impressed with. Should I try more?