Near the end of Julieta, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest feature, a man tells the title character that he’d been following her around for a while from a distance, but finally stopped because he realized he was turning into an obsessive stalker from a Patricia Highsmith novel. Almodóvar also wrote the film’s screenplay, and that Highsmith reference is his sly wink at viewers who’ve noticed that certain elements of Julieta—suspicious, seemingly inexplicable behavior; the recurring use of blood red; Alberto Iglesias’ urgent score—suggest the sort of elegant thriller in which the author specialized. (Famous movies adapted from her work include Strangers On A Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley.) This isn’t a thriller, though, and its actual source is three connected short stories by a very different writer, Alice Munro. Almodóvar has directed what’s basically a melodrama as if it were a thriller—a fascinating experiment that doesn’t always work as intended, but creates a useful dissonance en route to a powerfully open-ended conclusion.
One aspect that might look gimmicky from a distance, but seems fairly mundane in context, is the use of two different actresses to play Julieta. When we first meet her, she’s about 50 years old and played by Emma Suárez; the opening shot sees her packing boxes, as she’s planning to move from Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). Out on the street later that day, however, Julieta chances to run into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), the childhood best friend of her daughter, Antía. When Beatriz mentions that she’d also coincidentally bumped into Antía a week earlier, Julieta looks stunned, though she does her best to act casual. Soon afterward, she informs Lorenzo that she’s staying in Madrid, and pretty much boots him out of her life. She does move, however—into a nearby building that she’d lived in many years ago, hoping that Antía, who only knows that address, might contact her there.
So there’s a mystery here, of sorts: What happened to Julieta’s daughter? The answer comes in a lengthy flashback, during most of which Julieta is played by 31-year-old Adriana Ugarte (who doesn’t really look much like Suárez, but oh well; the moment in which she passes the baton back to Suárez is cleverly done, at least). Starting with Julieta meeting Antía’s father (Daniel Grao) on a train, this flashback zips through the entire family history, which includes a death at sea during a storm and—eventually—the rift that’s prevented any communication between mother and daughter for a dozen years. As it turns out, even Julieta has no idea what caused it, though the resemblance of her husband’s longtime housekeeper (Almodóvar regular Rossy De Palma) to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers should have been a tip-off.
Almodóvar is in no particular hurry to get to this revelation, though. He wants to honor all three of Munro’s stories (about the same woman, who’s called Juliet on the page), so he includes, for example, an interlude based on the story “Soon,” in which Julieta visits her parents, even though that relationship doesn’t really fit the narrative as he’s restructured it and needs to be awkwardly shoehorned in again later so as not to seem completely irrelevant. Consequently, Julieta sometimes feels a tad pokey—and might feel even more so were it not for discordant elements (especially Iglesias’ very Herrmann-esque strings) suggesting high intrigue that’s not technically in evidence yet. Only in the film’s final minutes does it start to retroactively coalesce into a sneaky study of crippling guilt, which it seems to argue can be passed down genetically. Does this tactic qualify as a bait and switch? Perhaps. If the result satisfies, however—and Julieta’s inconclusive but deeply moving ending packs an unexpected wallop—nobody’s likely to complain.