Successfully adapting the work of arguably the greatest living writer of short fiction is no easy thing, but Pedro Almodóvar manages to just that in Julieta, his latest cinematic exploration of the complicated lives of and interconnections between women. The Spanish auteur used three short stories from Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway as the basis for his screenplay. Titled “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence”, all three centre on the same character; Juliet Henderson, a Canadian woman first introduced as a twenty-one year old substitute Latin teacher and revisited years and decades later in the subsequent two stories. Almodóvar shifts the setting from Vancouver to Madrid for his adaptation and slightly alters the protagonists name to fit with the new setting.
Though technically and tonally a drama, Julieta is structured more like a mystery. In the film’s opening scenes we see a beautiful, middle-aged woman preparing to move to Portugal with a man she clearly loves. Julieta (Emma Suárez) seems happy to be leaving Madrid and tells her partner that she never wants to return to the Spanish capital. When an old acquaintance mentions having seen Julieta’s daughter Antía in Italy during a chance encounter a few days later everything suddenly changes. Julieta insists that she cannot leave Madrid, devastating her partner and plunging her own life into a deep despair. The mystery behind this abrupt change of heart starts to unravel when Julieta begins writing her estranged daughter a letter promising to tell her everything that she kept from her before.
Her letter is quickly revealed as a framing device when Julieta begins recounting the tale of how she met Antía’s father on a train and the film promptly flashes back to that very event. The first shot of young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) framed by the train window, her bright, blue sweater and peroxide pixie cut clashing with the loud orange curtains and scarlet fabric covering her seat, is quintessentially Almodóvar. An older man enters the compartment and repeatedly attempts to initiate a conversation with Julieta. Disturbed by his intense regard and irritated by his questions, she leaves to find another seat and ends up next to a handsome young fisherman called Xoan (Daniel Grao).
Xoan and Julieta’s conversation bubbles with the heat of their mutual attraction but it is interrupted when the train jerks to a sudden stop. When Julieta discovers that it’s because the older gentlemen she rejected earlier threw himself on the tracks she blames herself for his death. Xoan does his best to comfort her and the two end up sleeping together. Months later Julieta turns up the fisherman’s door to tell him she is pregnant with his child and they embark on a relationship. The themes of guilt and judgement that emerged in the film’s first act resurface in the second, which deals with the events depicted in “Soon” as Julieta takes her two-year-old daughter Antía to meet her parents and finds herself judging her father for how he has chosen to handle her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.
Guilt and judgement also haunt the third act of Julieta, which covers the plot of Munro’s third story “Silence”. In it we witness a now thirteen-year-old Antía (Priscilla Delgado) being forced to care of her mother after Julieta falls into a catatonic depression following the death of Xoan. This helps to explain why Antía decides to completely abandon her mother as soon as she turns eighteen, leaving Julieta heartbroken. The letter we hear via voice over takes on a new poignancy when we learn that Julieta is writing to a daughter she hasn’t seen or heard from in twelve years. Earlier in the film Julieta dismisses Xoan’s casual suggestion that she’s an artist but the loveliness of her letters, including lines like “your absence fills my life completely”, suggest he may have had a point.
The ending Pedro Almodóvar chooses for Julieta is different from the one Alice Munro gave the character in Runaway, but no less powerful or perfect. It also feels justified because the director manages to translate so many of the nuances of atmosphere, character and tone from Munro’s stories to his film. As in the original texts the major characters stubbornly refuse to confine themselves to simple types and no one is ever exactly or entirely good or bad, right or wrong, innocent or guilty. Even the small, supporting characters like Xoan’s disapproving housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) and Julieta’s soulful sculptor friend Ava (Inma Cuesta), retain the depth and complexity typical of an Alice Munro character.
Add in all the dreamily gorgeous work frequent Almodóvar collaborators Jean-Claude Larrieu, Alberto Iglesias and Sonia Grande do on Julieta’s cinematography, score and costume design and you’ve got a full, deeply satisfying cinematic story that actually does justice to its source material.