When it comes to exploring the relationship between mothers and sons, Pedro Almodóvar has well covered the territory. Mothers and daughters, on the other hand, are a bit more uncharted for the auteur. Sure, he has 2006’s Volver about a mother who comes back from the dead to remedy with her daughters what she couldn’t during her lifetime, but, in general Almodóvar favors the son perspective on mother.
With Julieta, his first movie since 2013’s polarizing sky-high screwball comedy, I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar employs his knack for highly complex plot webs with his ability to slowly unravel the events leading up to his lead characters’ current emotions. In Julieta’s (her older incarnation played by Emma Suárez) case, her controlled, careful persona becomes immediately evident as she meticulously packs up the books in her Madrid apartment to depart with her longtime boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), for Portugal. When Lorenzo reminds her that anything she can’t take can just be looked up on the internet, she scoffs, “I don’t want to buy the same thing twice. It makes me feel old.” Her insistence on packing all her belongings so as to never have to return to Madrid seems initially extreme, but as she walks down the street with a lightness in her step, she bumps into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a close childhood friend of her daughter’s, Antía (Blanca Parés). Beatriz informs Julieta that she only recently ran into Antía in Lake Como while she was working on a photoshoot for Vogue. Beatriz says she was with two of her three children, and that she seemed well in spite of looking a bit thin. This encounter sends Julieta into an emotional frenzy that prompts her to break off her plans with Lorenzo without explanation.
Crazed with the notion that the only way Antía will be able to contact her is if she still thinks she’s living in the same building they were in when she disappeared twelve years prior, Julieta moves back to it, waiting in anticipation for some sign or communication from Antía, choosing to occupy her time by writing down what little information she does know of Antía–in addition to the untold story of how she really met her father, Xoan (Daniel Grao). As far as Antía knows, the two of them simply met on a train. But there’s far more to it than that. And as Julieta lets the tale unfold, we soon forget about the present and delve with whole-hearted interest into the past.
The train encounter with Xoan is only initiated because of her disgust with an older man who says he was hoping they could talk since they’re both two travelers on their own. Skeeved out, she goes to the dining car where she notices a stag running next to the train. She remarks to Xoan, “He smells a woman in the air.” The double entendre is the perfect segue for them to get to know one another, with Xoan explaining that his wife has been in a coma for many years and that he’s a fisherman in a small coastal town.
Julieta, in turn, reveals that she’s teaching a class in Classic Literature, and thoroughly enjoys it, though she knows it’s going to end soon. Later, when the train comes to an abrupt halt, everyone assumes the stag was the cause. In actuality, it was the old man, intent on killing himself from the start of the train ride, as evidenced by his empty suitcase. Julieta, however, feels responsible, that if maybe she had talked to him, it wouldn’t have happened. Xoan comforts her and assures her of her innocence in the situation, a natural progression to boning.
Back at school, Julieta teaches a lesson on The Odyssey, discussing with her students how Ulysses was promised the one thing everyone covets by Calypso: eternal youth. But instead of accepting it, he chooses extreme peril and the unknown, because it’s preferable to the monotony of having total awareness of how every day for the rest of his life will go. This is what Julieta chooses when she receives a letter from Xoan expressing his intense desire for her, taking the risk in meeting him at his home, where his brusque housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma), insists she’s better off leaving as Xoan’s wife just died and he’s currently cozied up with her best friend, Ava (Inma Cuesta), a sculptor apparently known for taking up a lot of Xoan’s time. Nonetheless, Julieta stays in the face of Marian’s discouragement. Soon, after enough time spent there, the house starts to feel like Calypso’s island, but showing up already knowing she was pregnant contributed to her inability to leave.
The birth of Antía only serves to accentuate the paradisical nature of Julieta’s existence. However, an interlude comes when she goes to visit her parents in Andalusia, specifically because her mother, Sara (Susi Sánchez), is suffering from mounting Alzheimer’s. At times, she recognizes Julieta and her daughter, other times not. To compound Julieta’s concern, it’s evident that her father, Samuel (Joaquín Notario), is having an affair with the so-called caretaker.
It is a reality all too ironic when Julieta learns of Xoan’s own infidelity with Ava, as put on blast by Marian. At the time of this exchange, Antía has gone off to summer camp, much to her reluctance. When Julieta confronts Xoan about the affair, she decides to leave the house for a walk, while Xoan says he plans to go fishing. When the tides turn and a horrible storm hits, Xoan’s life is lost to the sea, and Julieta is left with the horrid task of breaking the news to Antía. But she is spared the unwanted burden when her new best friend Beatriz’s mother, Claudia (Pilar Castro), offers to take the two to Madrid at the end of the summer. Feeling it’s best to spare Antía the pain of knowing just a little longer, she consents.
When she finally comes to Madrid to collect Antía, it’s as though she has become an adult and the roles between them have instantaneously reversed. Before she knows it, she’s being coerced into renting an apartment next to Beatriz’s. Sinking further into a depression as the full weight of the guilt of Xoan’s (and the old man on the train’s) death seeps in, Julieta allows Antía to be her parent, pulling her out of the bathtub and drying her off with the care of a hospice worker. One day, the towel lifts up and Julieta is an old woman. Which is, yes, very much how the aging process occurs, truth be told.
Antía, now “of age,” makes the decision to go on a retreat to the Pyrenees for three months. It is at the end of this period that her disappearance occurs, and Julieta is told that she didn’t feel her mother was part of her “life path.” Forced to deal with the agony of this loss, like Lorelai did when Rory stopped communicating with her upon dropping out of Yale, Julieta takes comfort in sick rituals, like lighting candles on a birthday cake for Antía and then throwing it out uneaten in the trash.
Eventually, Julieta decides the only way to cope with the indescribable agony of a life without her daughter is to move to a part of Madrid they never went to together and start anew, ripping up photos and other sentimental items that might remind her of Antía. But the suppression of her past, the memories of what is essentially a part of her very self, falls to pieces when she runs into Beatriz and it all comes flooding back to her. What’s it all go back to, psychology-wise? Stifling always bubbles to the surface in one effusive deluge.
With gradual truths unveiled and feelings rawer than ever in the present, Almodóvar concludes Julieta in a manner that would make Amy Sherman-Palladino proud.