For the better part of three decades, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has been best known for his “women’s pictures,” dramas focused on the lives and loves of the strong female characters he’s exceptionally good at creating. Earning international acclaim with pictures like 1988’s Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and 1989’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodóvar went on to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar with his outstanding 1999 effort, All About My Mother, and followed up that success with another Oscar win for the screenplay of his 2002 drama, Talk to Her. However, Almodóvar hasn’t made a women’s picture since 2006’s Volver, which earned longtime muse Penélope Cruz an Oscar nomination for her acting.
Almodóvar branched out into thriller territory with 2009’s romantic drama Broken Embraces and 2011’s Hitchcockian tale of obsession The Skin I Live In. Now, after making a hilarious detour with the high-flying 2013 comedy I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar makes a triumphant return to the genre that defined him with Julieta, a masterful drama he’s adapted from stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro. Weaving together “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” three selections from Runaway, the Nobel Prize winner’s 2004 collection, Almodóvar’s latest is short on laughs, but he’s rather skillfully packaged his romantic drama in the guise of a thriller. Here, the director once again pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, most notably evoking 1951’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation, Strangers on a Train, through both longtime composer Alberto Iglesias’ string-heavy, noirish score and the initial meeting of this film’s damaged protagonist, Julieta (31-year-old Adriana Ugarte), and the man she will marry and have a daughter with, Xoan (Daniel Grao).
But before we witness this extended, railcar-set flashback, we’re introduced to Julieta in middle age, when she’s played by 52-year-old actress Emma Suárez with world-weary eyes. When we first see the older woman, she’s packing to move from Madrid to Portugal with her current boyfriend, Lorenzo (Talk to Her’s Darío Grandinetti). However, a chance meeting on the street with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), the childhood best friend of her daughter, Antía, sends Julieta into a spiral. Trying her best to act casually, Julieta nonetheless is stunned when Beatriz mentions she’s recently run into her daughter in Italy, 12 years after Antía disappeared, a fact Beatriz is unaware of. Informing Lorenzo that she will no longer be making the move to Portugal, Julieta effectively removes the shocked man from her life as she begins to recall the secrets that she’s hidden from him and suppressed for nearly a decade. She moves instead into the neighboring building where she’d once lived with Antía, in the desperate hope that her long-lost daughter might try to contact her at their last-known address.
Thus begins a mystery as Julieta puts pen to paper, telling Antía (and us) the tale of how she met her father during that fateful encounter in the mid ’80s. This extended flashback lays out an entire family history, filled with betrayals and a nagging sense of guilt on the part of our protagonist, though we’ll see that she’s not necessarily at fault for the tragedies that will befall her, which have more to do with the decisions made by the men in her life, the husbands and fathers who will disappear in one way or another, just as her daughter has. And although Julieta may not know what caused Antía to flee, the welcome appearance of Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma as her husband’s longtime housekeeper may hold a key, given her character’s resemblance to Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), another film that Julieta slyly echoes.
In signature fashion, Almodóvar is in no rush to connect the dots of his allusions, focusing instead on his typically lush production design, color-coded as always, with a deep emphasis on reds, which are present in nearly every scene. The sumptuous cinematography comes courtesy of Jean-Claude Larrieu, who’s working with Almodóvar for the first time. It’s a wonderful fit. Larrieu captures the primary colors of Almodóvar regular Antxon Gómez’s production design exceptionally well, allowing the younger Julieta’s bright blue wardrobe to bleed into the brilliant crimsons that her middle-aged self favors, transforming a life that has become an open wound. The moment when Almodóvar switches once and for all from Ugarte to Suárez—within the middle of a scene!—is breathtakingly well done.
And although Almodóvar flirts with thriller conventions throughout, he playfully acknowledges his film’s romantic intentions when a love-struck man informs Julieta that he’s been following her from a distance, only to stop once he realized he was acting like an obsessive stalker from a Highsmith novel.
The deeply moving conclusion that Almodóvar builds to might strike some as a bit too open-ended, but he finishes as he began, with two lovers in an enclosed compartment, traveling forward on yet another journey toward destiny.
Starring Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti, Michelle Jenner, Joaquín Notario, Susi Sánchez, Tomás del Estal, Nathalie Poza, Priscilla Delgado, Blanca Parés, Sara Jiménez, Pilar Castro and Rossy de Palma. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, based on the short stories “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence” by Alice Munro. At Boston Common and Kendall Square.