Julieta: All About My Daughter, by David Bax
In many ways, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta feels similar to any number of his other movies, especially in the early going. It’s not just that the film, like most of his best work, is about women–mothers and daughters in this case. His Hitchcockesque tendencies are on display as well from the very beginning, in which a sharp, Bernard Herrmann-type score (actually by Almodóvar’s regular collaborator, Alberto Iglesias) accompanies a scene that appears to be about two lovers hurriedly searching for a stash of hidden money on the eve of a quick departure. Of course, those moments aren’t what they seem. And, soon, the woman in the scene will have a chance run-in with a now-grown former friend of her daughter’s and will, for reasons we won’t at first understand, abandon her partner and their plans to relocate.
The woman is, of course, Julieta herself and, in the opening chapter, she is a middle-aged woman (Emma Suárez) living in Madrid. Soon, though, we will jump back 30 years to the 1980s to see how young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) came to meet her husband, give life to her daughter and, over the course of time, lose them both in very different ways.
Motifs (narrative, visual or other) are often subtle clues as to what the artist finds important about their work and where they would like you to focus your attention. In Julieta, though, these patterns and repetitions are far from subtle; they are the very point. More than once, we see daughters behaving selfishly toward their mothers or husbands seeking companionship in women other than their ailing wives. And we see trains, buses and boats connecting people to those they care about or taking them away, sometimes simultaneously.
Most of this unfolds against a period backdrop whose particulars almost unnoticeably shift from the 1980s to the present, the appointments, clothing and hairstyles following the same natural progression they do in real time. Julieta is a beautifully conceived and executed aesthetic achievement. With production design by Antxón Gómez and costumes by Sonia Grande, it’s the most tactile period piece since last year’s Carol.
Julieta is also similar to Todd Haynes’ film in its humanistic depiction of psychological and emotional pain. The entire story hinges on the universal but generally un-commented-on fact that anytime you say goodbye to someone it could well be for the last time. There’s a crushing limit to the amount of control we each have over our lives and relationships. Almodóvar shows us the angst this causes and the fierce but futile determination to forge one’s own path that it can inspire, no matter the fallout for other people.
Even in our resolve, though, we are not in control. Julieta’s story illustrates the ways in which we blindly revisit upon others the pain we have received in our lives. Almodóvar can be just as brutally unsentimental about natural human cruelty as a filmmaker like Michael Haneke but, with Julieta, he sets himself apart with his aching, yearning empathy.