“They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do.” Philip Larkin’s words have become so ingrained in the popular consciousness that perhaps we take for granted the truth they contain.
Spanish Don of direction, Pedro Almodóvar, has spent most of his career dissecting the intricacies of one of the most allusive subject matters: the humble family. Now 66 years of age, Almodóvar’s typical rose-tinted take on family life has not softened, but become darker in Julieta, the twentieth offering from the veteran director.
The eye-popping brightness and vibrancy of the colours, the fondly affectionate depiction of strong women and the novelistic, non-linear approach to the narrative are Almodóvar tropes that Julieta displays in droves. The sets simmer with Spanish sun. From the Andalusian harshness of the white light, to the softer ochre palette that defines Madrid’s city-slicking, to the open expanse of the Atlantic ocean on the Galician coast, no one captures Spain like Pedro Almodovar.
His eye for a stunning set has lost none of its force. But a director famous for bringing household names like Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas into the limelight, has again unearthed some incredible Spanish talent for the world’s screens. Having made her name on the small screen in Spanish period drama, La Señora, Adriana Ugarte, who plays the young Julieta, transfers to the silver screen with panache and an elegant ease.
The plot, based on a series of short-stories from Alice Munro’s novel, Runaway, begins in the present day with Julieta played by Emma Suárez. Despite the stale mundanity of a generic Madrid apartment, what develops is an acute psycho-analytical portrait of a seemingly stable woman in a state of free-falling emotional collapse. As always in Almodóvar, it is the accident, the chance occurrence, that triggers the catastrophe.
When Julieta comes upon an old friend of her daughter’s, Bea (Michelle Jenner) Julieta’s veneer of strength dissolves. Having been estranged from her daughter for the past 13 years, the meeting awakens agonies buried deep in Julieta for the past decade. Bea has seen Julieta’s daughter, Antía. She abandons plans to move to Portugal and moves into her old apartment where the pair had lived together, awaiting a letter from her daughter. Julieta lives for the past and writes unread letters telling everything to her daughter, dredging up the dark, untold pain of their past.
The narrative then dives back into Julieta’s history as Adriana Ugarte becomes the face of our eponymous protagonist. For all the vivacity of Almodóvar’s signature style, the quality of Julieta boils down to the haunting beauty of Ugarte’s performance. She has the looks of a young Penelope Cruz, the English actress of stage and screen, Billie Piper and Keira Knightley. She is beautiful. But her beauty belies the tragedy of a truly terrible tale of heartbreak and loss, coupled with loss and more heartbreak.
Julieta is a sobbing melodrama that never drifts into meaningless melancholy. The film gives an honest, unfiltered depiction of the ways in which family inadvertently fucks you up, adding vital force to Larkin’s hackneyed turn of phrase.