“THE POOR WOMAN was like a vegetable, and a man needs a woman,” Marian, a middle-aged housekeeper, says a quarter of the way into Julieta, Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent film. The man’s name is Xoan and the “poor woman” is his wife, who has just died from an illness that left her bedridden for six years. Julieta, a spunky substitute classics teacher in her mid-20s, looks up from her cup of coffee, equal parts stunned and confused. This is but one of many moments in which Julieta discovers, at the same time that we do, the limits of her own knowledge. People who she thinks she knows turn out to have been deceiving her for weeks, if not years. This is especially the case with her relationship to other women: her relationship with Xoan’s lover, her relationship with her daughter, and ultimately, as we see her 20 years later, her relationship with her younger self. Julieta’s lack of security — professionally, interpersonally — is sustained throughout the film, providing an ethos of insecurity rarely felt in the hands of this hyper-confident director.
Against this backdrop, Marian stands out as a fully self-possessed character. Played by a steel-faced Rossy de Palma, she is in many ways a relic of Spain’s unreflective, sinister past. A seamless blend of Catholicism and authoritarianism, she might as well be the Wicked Witch of the West to the generation of women who came of age, as Julieta did, during la movida, the countercultural explosion and sexual revolution unleashed following the death, in 1975, of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The young Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte, is the exact opposite of Marian. Well-educated and vivacious, her loud hairstyle, short skirt, and bright stockings tell a story of rebellion, liberation, and self-determination. Marian is from the staunchly traditional region of Galicia; Julieta is from Madrid, the cosmopolitan capital of Spain and la movida. The two women are as indissoluble as oil and water.
But there’s yet another layer to the scene in which they meet. It witnesses the clash of two Almodóvars. Having starred in seven of his films, Rossy de Palma is a veteran of the Almodóvar universe. In it, she occupies a Viola Davis role: she is billed as a supporting actress who, in a handful of lines, creates a complete character that orients an entire film. Ugarte, meanwhile, is a newcomer to this universe. So is Emma Suárez, who shares the lead role, playing Julieta in her 40s and 50s. It’s been over a decade since Almodóvar has picked leads he’s never worked with before, and the first time since Penélope Cruz in All About My Mother (1999) that he’s used a lead from outside the circle known as las chicas Almodóvar, which includes Carmen Maura, Cecilia Roth, and — why not? — Antonio Banderas.
Apart from the addition of Ugarte and Suárez, what’s also new about this Almodóvar is his turn toward austerity. Even Volver (2006), perhaps his most serious film before Julieta, was brimming with comedy: a matriarchal ghost comes back to haunt a family; a corpse is disposed in a freezer. But in Julieta, a sustained focus on loss extinguishes some beloved Almodóvarian tropes. In a different Almodóvar film, a trip to what appears to be a Catholic cult would produce more color; here it provides crypto-conservative pathos. Rather than indulge our curiosity about a suggested lesbian relationship — as it was in Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), Dark Habits (1983), or All About My Mother (1999) — Julieta simply piques it. And, despite catching a glimpse of a hospital room — a feature of no less than 11 of his films, June Thomas once noted in Slate — we’re only invited in for a few minutes. Some might excuse all of these departures from form by pointing to the fact that Julieta is an adaptation of three short stories by Alice Munro, published in The New Yorker in 2004. But something else is going on, and it has little to do with either Almodóvar or Munro.
Julieta is a film about a mother-daughter relationship gone awry. Much of the story is told through flashbacks. After chancing upon one of her daughter’s childhood friends, the fiftysomething Julieta, played by Suárez, drops everything and begins to write a letter to her estranged daughter, Antía. Through the flashbacks, we watch Julieta meet Xoan, Antía’s father, on a train to Galicia. We see Julieta’s fling turn into a relationship and that relationship into a nuclear family. We learn about Xoan and his fishing. We meet Ava, Xoan’s childhood friend and lover, and watch Julieta’s jealousy brew. We witness Julieta transform temporally and temperamentally alongside Spanish democracy: from a youthful rebel in control of her destiny, she becomes a bourgeois shell of her former self. As the film approaches the present, the setting shifts from the idyllic shores of Galicia to the nicer parts of Madrid’s concrete jungle. Xoan has died in an accident at sea, and Madrid acts as a refuge. But for Julieta, it can’t prevent emotional paralysis from setting in. Once fascinated by Homer’s Iliad and having sex in a train car, Julieta never regains — convincingly, at least — her emotional or intellectual strength and independence. Her teenage daughter Antía and her daughter’s best friend, Bea, soon become her primary caregivers. We watch them take her out for a walk. She watches them play basketball. “Things happened without my participation,” she writes in her diary as we see her younger self drift through Madrid like a ghost, the irredeemable gap between her and her daughter growing ever wider. The summer before college, the girls leave: Bea to the United States, Antía to a three-month spiritual retreat in the mountains. Julieta expects Antía to come back, but she never does.
Almodóvar’s own transformation as a filmmaker mirrors Julieta’s. “Almodóvar has certainly become more bourgeois over the years,” D. T. Max recently wrote in The New Yorker. “I used to admire the way his movies conveyed his love for Madrid’s humble bus system: in Dark Habits, Cristina Pascual takes multiple buses to flee some thugs; in Live Flesh, Penélope Cruz gives birth on the No. 26 line. In recent movies, there are a lot of cabs and private cars.” And yet, in Julieta it almost looks as though Almodóvar turns to the past to make a nod to today’s generation of young Spaniards, the so-called generación perdida (“lost generation”), whose livelihoods have been crippled by the Great Recession. The young Julieta looks deceptively like one of Almodóvar’s classic characters, tailor-made for Spain’s current economic crisis: a punk, independent woman who is also an intellectual traveling lengthy distances just to be a substitute teacher for a few months. Spain’s era of temporary employment contracts, Almodóvar reminds us, began decades ago.
But Almodóvar is also a creature of his time and place. His films often travel from one region to the next, yet watching them, one would think that the only language spoken in Spain is Spanish. In Julieta, not a single word of Galician is spoken despite one of the protagonists’ names being Xoan — Galician for Juan — and over a third of the film being set in a rural, Galician village. This erasure of linguistic and cultural differences happens elsewhere in the Almodóvar universe: we don’t hear any Catalan, for instance, in All About My Mother, which takes place in Barcelona. But Almodóvar’s Spain — the Spain of progressive, sexually uninhibited young people — has passed him by. His would-be audience today — think here of the indignados, Podemos, and the social movements that elected the progressive mayors of Madrid and Barcelona — is more sensitive to Spain’s internal linguistic and cultural borders. Many of them support the right for Catalonia and the Basque Country (if not also Galicia) to hold a referendum on their national sovereignty, something unthinkable during Almodóvar’s time of the transition to democracy. Such oversights reveal how out of touch Almodóvar is from the cultural and political milieu of today’s youth, a group to which he once gave voice on the big screen.
“Antía has chosen her own path and you don’t form part of it.” With these words, spoken by the mysterious leader of a retreat where Antía has spent three months clearing her head, Julieta begins to slowly realize how much she’s relied on her daughter for stability. Her mistake with Antía is nearly the same as it was with Xoan: emotional dependency. “The best thing would be for you to accept reality,” the retreat leader says. Acceptance is a heavy word, and it makes few cameos in Almodóvar’s oeuvre. In Julieta, it takes center stage. We later learn that Antía speaks “like a fanatic” and “has three kids,” sure-fire signs that the three-month retreat was a cover for a religious cult. That crisis of faith, surprisingly for an Almodóvar film, was spurred by Antía’s rejection of a romantic relationship with Bea, her childhood best friend. Unlike in previous Almodóvar films, lesbianism spurs religion instead of religion spurring lesbianism. It’s a complete inversion of what we have come to expect from the director of Dark Habits. The plot line, as one might guess, wasn’t part of Munro’s short stories. So why is it part of Almodóvar’s?
At the beginning of the film, the older Julieta spurns a trip to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo; by the film’s end, she winds up going with him to Switzerland to find her daughter. Antía’s pilgrimage is similar to those of so many Spaniards her age and younger, who have been left out to dry by the economic crisis. Like them, she too goes north to find spiritual — and economic — fulfillment. And in this sense, Julieta’s final line is telling: “I’m not going to ask her for an explanation. I just want to be with her,” she tells Lorenzo on their way to find Antía. Julieta wants to be back in her daughter’s life. But desire is never so simple. And neither is politics. The parallels with the economic crisis are clear: just as Julieta seeks only reconciliation without explanation, Spain’s political elites also claim not to want to “open up old wounds.” Some of those wounds date to the Franco regime. Others are fresh from the country’s botched handling of the Great Recession. In either case, we are left with fundamental questions about desire — What does a daughter want from a mother? What do we want from our government? — that a filmmaker like Almodóvar should be capable of contending with.
Almodóvar poignantly satirized the electoral system in “General Erections,” a famous scene from his first film, Pepi, Luci, Bom. Behind the pretenses of policy, leadership, and responsibility, democracy was nothing more than a competition over penis size. When the film was released in 1980, his criticism of given definitions of democracy, when Spain’s was less than five years old, was as daring as it was insightful. Elections were most certainly a popularity contest with masochistic, masculinist tendencies, as the scene isn’t shy to reveal. But an understandable idealism prevented anyone from admitting this in public. Today, the opposite is true. Many admit that Spain’s democracy is in shambles: unemployment is sky high, education no longer secures any kind of career, and the unending litany of corruption scandals since the beginning of the crisis have only deepened the country’s skepticism of the stories told by its politicians and elites. Unity has become a euphemism for the papering over of actual problems. Yet in Julieta, unity appears to be Almodóvar’s only solution.
The one relationship that never reunites, even implicitly, is Antía and Bea’s. Antía’s three-month retreat to the Pyrenees turns out to be a 12-year exile, not only from the orbit of her mother, but also from the homoerotic orbit of Bea. Their relationship had become “hell,” Bea tells Julieta at the end of the movie, standing in the same basketball court where she and Antía had once played together. “I decided to go and study design in New York to get away from [your daughter].” Their futures couldn’t have turned out more differently: Bea is a successful New York–trained fashion designer in Madrid; Antía is a religious mother with three children in Switzerland. These also appear to be the two available paths for young Spaniards today: either be like Bea, whose financial comfort insulates her from the past decade of economic ruin, or be like Antía, who has chosen religion as her elixir to survive the crisis. Fortunately, there are many Spaniards today who have managed to avoid this binary decision. They have turned to political action instead.