Pedro Almodóvar’s latest Movie Julieta is a Homeric family biography, bookended with Hitchcockian disquiet. I am not sure if those two moods go easy together; the story is loosely based on three Alice Munro short stories, so maybe this is what kept me watching. The movie starts when the older Julieta (played by Emma Suárez) gets word that her long-lost daughter Antía is alive and well and a mother of three, living in Switzerland. Julieta leaves her lover and moves back into the flat where she and Antía used to live so that the daughter can find the mother at the old adress – if she wants to. This and the brooding score made me expect some long-simmering family conflict.
Julieta, a classics teacher, sits down at her writing desk and writes a very long letter to her daughter. That she writes it in a diary makes clear that she doesn’t intend to send the text – not because she doesn’t want to, but because she doesn’t know the address. She writes about how her younger self (Adriana Ugarte) travels by train to a new teaching job. The train journey is the first allusion to Homer’s Odyssey. Someone who knows that text better than me is sure to detect many other allusions that I have missed. (Julieta herself seems strangely oblivious to any Homeric aspects of her own life story, considering that she teaches Homer’s stories for a living.) The train journey also introduces us to Xoan, a fisherman on his way into town to buy a motor for his boat; he will become Julieta’s lover and husband. And the same journey introduces the theme of guilt: an older man sits down in Julieta’s compartment, and when she learns that he threw himself in front of the train, she cannot help but ask herself and Xoan if she could have prevented the man’s death.
They move to the Sea, of course, and for all I know, the next half hour of the movie could well be shot in Greece, not because we are in Homer’s territory, but because we get beautiful shots of the deep blue sea, and Antía takes after her father and wants to go fishing with him whenever possible. Julieta, meanwhile, goes teaching. There is also a Greek chorus, personified in a curly-haired housekeeper named Marian, played by Almodovár regular Rossy de Palma. She dotes on Xoan and Altán, but is suspicious of Julieta because a mother’s place is with her family. The way Rossy de Palma brings those lines is funny and foreboding at the same time. And come to think of it: Almodovár’s movies used to have a lot more fun in them than this one here.
And then Xoan dies in a storm. Julieta falls into a deep depression, and Antía and her best friend Bea have to take care of her when she soaks for hours in the bathtub. The allusion that the bathwater brings her closer to her dead husband is a bit on the nose, but there is an ingenious shot where the two girls carry Julieta from the tub to a chair and rub her skin and hair so that the actress Ugarte diappears under the towels. Julieta reappers dried and is now played by Suárez. The scene is uncut. All things Homeric have come to an end, and the tragedy seems to be over.
And then the problems I have with the movie begin. Antía leaves her mother for a retreat in the Pyrenees and abandones all contact. It’s never quite clear why she is so resentful. I don’t need the reasons spelled out for me, and I can guess that it must have something to do with the daughter mothering her own mother, but there should be more than her disappearance so that the protagonist can once more feel the movie’s main feeling, guilt, and fall into another depression. It bothered me that Antía does not have any more scenes for the rest of the film. There is a nice montage of Julieta dumping birthday cakes into the trash, but it felt like a copout because the screenplay doesn’t want to tackle Antía’s side of things. I don’t mean to say that Julieta has to hear about Antía’s motives, but the movie builds up Antía until she is a young woman, and then dumps her.
The ending comes too soon. Julieta and her lover drive through Switzerland, and the village where Antía lives with her children is visible, and the car drives towards it, and the movie ends. How about Antía’s feelings, her face as she sees her mother for the first time in years? Just let them have a moment together. Instead, there is Julieta in the car, insisting that she won’t question her daughter about her motives for abandoning her. That line could have assumed a different meaning, an unknown layer of meaning for Julieta, if we had known a little more about Antía’s motives.