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January 13, 2017

By now, fans of Almodóvar know what to expect from one of his films: the passion, the sexuality, the closely observed female characters, the shocking twists. But the biggest surprise in Julieta may be how unsurprising it is. Loosely based on a trio of short stories from Alice Munro’s collection Runaway, this is one of Almodóvar’s tamer films. Sure, it’s still a sexy Spanish soap opera of a story, but there’s nothing that compares to the wild turns in his most recent I’m So Excited or The Skin I Live In.

Instead, we get a portrait of a woman who has led quite the tumultuous life. A middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) is about to move with her boyfriend from Madrid to Portugal when she bumps into a childhood friend of her estranged daughter, Antía (Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés, at different ages). Beatriz had herself just run into Antía, living now in Switzerland.

The shock has an immediate effect on Julieta, bringing up memories she’d long tried to move beyond. Upon hearing the news, she cancels her prospective life with her boyfriend, and instead moves back into an apartment in the last building where she’d lived with Antía, in the hopes that her daughter might contact her at that address. While she waits — for all she knows, forever — she begins to write to her daughter, telling her the story of her life that she was never able to communicate before they lost contact.

A younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), on her way to a new job as a teacher, meets a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on a train. A tragic accident delays their trip, and the two make love that night on the train. But Xoan can’t leave it as a one-night stand; using the school as the only address he knows for her, he writes to Julieta and invites her to visit him in his seaside village. When she arrives, his housekeeper (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) tells her that she must leave; his wife has just died after a long illness, and he is with another confidante, Ava (Inma Cuesta). But Julieta remains at the house, and when Xoan returns they rekindle their relationship.

But Xoan’s dalliances with Ava continue, which leads to fights with Julieta, who is especially hurt by the echoes of her own father’s infidelities. After one row, while Antía is off at summer camp, Xoan takes his boat out into a squall, and is lost. The loss comes as a shock, and starts the descent that leads to the breakdown of her relationship with Antía. But she’d built her life back up after the two losses, only for the meeting with Beatriz to tear it all down again.

Almodóvar departs from Munro’s award-winning prose, but the result is no less beautifully layered. Scene after scene, and shot after shot pile rhyme on top of rhyme. Images repeat themselves, but rarely so heavy-handed that he seems to be making a point of it. The past and the future echo each other, transposing patterns and repeating them. And the thread that binds it together is this one beautifully tragic character, split between two actresses who work so well together you can barely notice the seams.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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