As “Julieta” opens, the titular character (Emma Suárez) encounters a young woman, Bea (Michelle Jenner), on the street whose eyes widen at the sight of Julieta. As it happens, Bea is an old friend of Juliea’s daughter, Antía, whom Bea has just seen. Upon learning this, the entire visage of Julieta, who has seemed so plainly happy in the initial moments, changes. Life drains from her face and the tone in her voice turns emotionally fraught as she grills Bea about where Antía is and what she is up to. Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar is intent not to tip his hand right away but to draw the exact nature of this emotional shift out, tendering clues, like the sliced-up photo that Julieta promptly dumps from an envelope onto her desk in the wake of seeing Bea. Later, after the photo has been taped back together, we realize it is of Antía, emblemizing “Julieta” as a two hour piecing together of where this mother/daughter relationship went wrong.
That marks “Julieta”, which Almodóvar adapted from short stories by Alice Munro, as something akin to a murder mystery without the murder. The twists and turns here, even when inherently melodramatic, are often presented in a more muted fashion, like a pair of grisly, narrative altering deaths that happen off screen, completely removing their visceral impact to instead focus on how they linger with and affect Julieta. The answers at the end of the maze, meanwhile, are inward looking, not outwardly explosive, foreshadowed in the movie’s opening shot, a close-up of a red satin blouse of the titular character, her chest subtly heaving, suggesting something built up within her begging to erupt. By the end, however, it will not have erupted so much as just sort of seeped out and evaporated, at least a little.
This close-up of her chest gives way to shots of her packing in advance of leaving her native Spain for Portugal with dour if dashing Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But once the thought of her daughter has been brought to re-bear, Julieta immediately reneges on her future to re-engage with her past, moving back into the apartment she once shared with Antía and composing a letter to her offspring, which means the majority of the story is told in flashback and is why so much of what happens is colored less with full-throated immediacy than quiet rumination.
It also means that because the story spans decades. Julieta is played by two different actresses, Suárez as the older version and Adriana Ugarte as the younger, and if they never quite feel like the same person that is by design – young “Julieta” is living this story but older Julieta is living with it, a product of all that his happened. What happened, we learn, is a moment of passion with Xoan (Daniel Grao) aboard a train, which yields Antía and which prompts Julieta to set aside a life of academia for simple domesticity with Xoan instead, living to raise Antía, a single-minded devotion with which she struggles.
The emergent irony in Julieta’s relationship with Xoan is that he is already married, to a very sick woman, who he and everyone else is simply, harshly but honestly waiting on to die, which mirrors the relationship of Julieta’s own mother and father, the latter taking comfort in the arms of another woman even as he tends to dying wife. It’s a pointed parallel, evoking the idea that we are all fated to fall prey to the same life choices we saw in our parents that left us aghast.
The story’s real thrust is Antía gradually pulling away from her mother, never more so than a spiritual retreat high in the mountains. When Julieta comes to pick up her daughter, she learns that Antía has already departed on her own with strict orders for no one to tell her mother where she has gone. In other words, she takes the opposite tack as her mother, spurning domestic responsibilities for some vaguely defined finding herself odyssey. It leaves her mother wandering in a cloud of depression, one that she denies only to have re-consume her, and that lifts in a strange kind of way at the conclusion, which will not be revealed. Suffice to say it is no “A Ha!” moment except that, maybe, in its own way, it is. one in which guilt & regret and motherhood going hand in hand becomes a bloodless twist.