The letter prompts flashbacks, as well as establishing Julieta’s central mystery: What happened long ago that caused a rift between mother and daughter, a break so great that it appears to have gravely altered Julieta’s life? Lorenzo alludes to unspoken-of troubles; the old landlord remembers Julieta leaving Madrid, when she in fact hasn’t.
Back in the 1980s, we meet the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), mini-skirted and spiky-haired, traveling on a train. In the dining car, she meets a handsome young fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao), and they begin a relationship. And so the film moves back and forth, filling in the years in which Julieta’s daughter grew up, and the present, where the older woman struggles to redefine and understand that time.
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film is a relatively straightforward affair for the Spanish director more often noted for his flamboyant visual style and his playful reworking of genres. Julieta, adapted from three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, directly recalls classic Hollywood “women’s pictures,” melodramas in which the role of women was informed and undone by domestic crises. Employing a lush score, Almodóvar incorporates such familiar elements as romances on trains, life-altering storms, letters, and housekeepers with secrets. (It is fair to note that these are also Hitchcockian elements, and one could easily tease out an homage here to that director of many women-centered films.)
What happened to Julieta is a mystery to us, but her search for answers is more existential: Where did she (possibly) go wrong balancing work, motherhood and self? She is told that “a woman’s job is to look after her family,” and we note the looser role that men play in the domestic sphere (often made easier by women tending to them). The story depicts several emotional triangles, often between parents and children, which by their very nature cause the third party pain.
This film is fairly reserved, and not leavened by much humor. Its examination of a woman reconciling the joys, pains, regrets and fears of her life resolves in a manner that is satisfying to the narrative, but which viewers might feel lacks an emotional catharsis.