¡Vote for Pedro!
Almodóvar, that is.
My first encounter with Almodóvar came freshman year of college, when a friend invited me to see a preview of Volver (2006) with a Q&A at the DGA Theater in West Hollywood. I knew his name but nothing more. But we drank in the comedy of sisterhood, and afterwards, he came out to answer questions. By coincidence, it also happened to be Almodóvar's birthday, so the moderator surprised him with a cake and the whole audience sang "Happy Birthday, Pedro." I mention this anecdote only because if, by some fluke of chronology, you walked in on Almodóvar's career around Volver or Broken Embraces (2009), you might get the sense that here was a very genteel, respectable arthouse director, where even the NC-17 sex of 2004's Bad Education (edited down for some releases) had the feeling of prestige and social importance. But the early films of this one-time enfant terrible, before full maturation set in, show a speed, energy, and mania that is still their own: the sex-death kink of Matador (1986), the twisted relationships of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), the breakout comic frenzy of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). It was enough that Vincent Canby wrote in 1988 that Almodóvar's movies, light or dark, were all linked by their feeling of humor—an argument that, three decades and several somber films later, would be much harder to make.
In this context, his first two films of the 2010s pointed in an intriguing direction. The gender-studies horror show The Skin I Live In (2011) was something that no Almodóvar film had been in years: genuinely, dangerously shocking. To draw an American comparison, it would be like if, after developing a reputation for Miramax-style period pieces, Todd Haynes suddenly made another film that challenged comfort zones as much as Poison (1991) or Safe (1995). (We can always hope.) The puff-pastry comedy of I'm So Excited! (2013) was written off by many reviewers as a misfire, and even if it was a mess, it was a paradoxically exciting one; it captured more of that old frenzy than the director had yet attempted this century, and proved in its best moments that he could still conjure delectable comic chemistry. I left convinced both that I had seen his worst film in ages, and that it would be a joy to see him continue in that vein. But Julieta (2016), based on the short stories of Alice Munro, marks another ninety-degree turn, now towards an insular adult drama. And if it shows that any return to the provocateur days of his youth will (at least for the moment) have to wait, it also exemplifies what we've gained in his maturity.
To heed my own advice about plot, I will say briefly that Julieta is about a woman with a past. We first meet Julieta in her autumn years, played by Emma Suárez, as a member of the European bourgeoisie. We flash back to Julieta as a young woman, now played by Adriana Ugarte, as her history unrolls before us: a story of love, loss, and complications, powered by a painfully severed bond between a mother and her child. Almodóvar has plumbed this territory before, particularly in All About My Mother (1999). And indeed, we know we're in an Almodóvar movie right from the opening shot of billowing, voluptuous red fabric, paired with an Alberto Iglesias score that calls to mind Bernard Herrmann by way of flamenco.
But Julieta is also high in the running for the most grounded, least outlandish film Almodóvar has ever put his name on. Almodóvar tends to remix his favorite elements the way a cook might make different dishes from the same ingredients. His presentation of Julieta—which incorporates comas, deaths, and melodramatic revelations of its own—is uncommonly subdued. What it lacks in novelty, it makes up in soul: the biggest surprise is just how much it is unmistakably an older man's film, attuned to memory, to wistfulness, to regret, and to the gaps between different generations' perceptions of the world.
Near the beginning of the film, Suárez's version of Julieta comments on how she hates a small reminder of being old; she even tries to rent the same apartment she once had years earlier, all the better to live with the past when she doesn't place much stock in the present or the future. Ugarte's version of Julieta, on the cusp of thirty, is the kind of strong, sensual woman that Almodóvar's films have always been populated with, but who is now a knowingly temporary figure. (Early on, she indulges in Almodóvar's brand of spontaneous, liberated, caution-to-the-wind sex, though here it is more elegaic than anything else). The script notes the way children yearn to be treated like adults, and the way old men wish to feel young again. And a scene lingers on the young Julieta, a teacher of classic literature, confidently telling her students about how in The Odyssey, Ulysses willfully rejects the chance to live forever. As thematic hints go, it's an evocative one, and Julieta's occupation as a literary scholar is itself an intriguing detail. Almodóvar's films are full of heroes or heroines who are professional artists in one way or another: writers, filmmakers, or actresses whose real lives get helplessly tangled in the fictions-within-fictions they create. But the older Julieta is not one of his helpless creators. Much like the film named after her, she reflects on what's already there.
This is not to say that Julieta is a passive figure—at least, not entirely—but rather that she spends much of the movie remembering her story as if she were part of the audience at the film of her own life. By pure serendipity, Julieta arrives in theaters on the heels of Barry Jenkins' Moonlight (2016), another work about the passing of time. And if you get the chance to see both of them on a double bill, take it, because you'll be treated to a master class in the uncanny effect of using different actors to play different ages, as though you're being trained to look at one figure but see another. (Not for nothing does Julieta make an explicit reference to Ángela Molina, the Spanish actress who played one half of Luis Buñuel's schizoid heroine in That Obscure Object of Desire ). Ugarte's younger Julieta is sexy, self-possessed, and outgoing; Suárez's Julieta is weathered and fatigued. "Things were happening without my participation," Suárez says in voice-over, reflecting on a low-point in Julieta's life. And shortly thereafter we get the film's crowning touch: Within the same scene set at the same moment in time, the young Julieta disappears and is replaced suddenly by the old Julieta, presented by Almodóvar as if it were a magician's trick—or as if his heroine realized all at once, with no flashbacks or flash-forwards in between, just how much time had passed. It is one of the most haunting shots he's ever filmed.
This would mark Julieta as an unhappy film, a movie whose view of aging is as driven by tragic inevitability as an ancient drama that Julieta might teach her class. If so, that may be because Julieta views herself that way, as a figure whose womanhood—both as a lover and a mother—has expired or outlived its usefulness. But few filmmakers have ever loved women more, and Julieta's despair is also something that Almodóvar rejects, albeit with a worldly ache that feels completely earned. Julieta, whether she feels it or not, is still wanted, and the gap between generations will be closed when the young have lived long enough to grasp what the old have been through. I suspect that no Almodóvar heroine could ever successfully shut herself away the way Julieta tries to; he thrives on groups, pairings, and family units far too much. And so the film is not unhappy or fatalistic but melancholy, which is hardly the same thing but far more valuable. One of the threads that still ties Almodóvar's films together, whether they're humorous or tragic or fall into the cracks between genres, is a sense of bemusement at the strange, ironic, unpredictable ways that life turns out. Julieta carries this with the emotional honesty of its convictions, and in doing so underscores his serpentine plots as a worldview worth pondering. Spend enough time on this Earth, and anyone's life could turn into high melodrama.