On the surface, there’s a huge gulf between the work of Alice Munro and Pedro Almodóvar, two dissimilar artistic technicians operating in decidedly different mediums, each making maximal use of the complexities of their chosen form. Munro writes minutely focused, achingly subtle short stories in a subdued realist mode, whittling down potentially melodramatic conflicts to locate the tender cores of her subjects’ unassuming lives. Almodóvar, a committed aesthetician with an unwavering fondness for grandiose pastiche, stages vibrant extravaganzas in which buried suffering explodes outward in flamboyant torrents of emotion. Yet despite their differing formal approaches, the two artists share a number of commonalities, both treating the indignities of female domestic life as details worthy of serious dramatic investigation, imbuing these scenarios with an enriching degree of gravity.
Adapting Munro, in a project originally intended to function as his English-language debut, the Spanish auteur of course puts his signature stamp on the material, introducing lurid new details and primping the stylistic possibilities of a suite of inter-connected short stories (from the 2004 collection Runaway. A modest tale chronicling three transitional episodes in a woman’s life thus becomes an expansive web of noirish intrigue, its tawdry tangle of hidden secrets quivering beneath a veneer of handsome respectability.
Focused on recurrence as a visual and narrative motif, Julieta follows the title character (played alternately by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez) as she encounters parallel scenarios in progressive dealings with her one true love, her aging parents, and her daughter, recounting these stories from the perspective of lonely middle age. Abandoning a career in academia after being impregnated by a married man, Julieta finds happiness in a quaint Galician fishing village, a state of domestic contentment that sours after a tragedy scars her relationship with her beloved child. Positioned at the center of a variety of romantic and inter-generational junctures, the once-fresh-faced Julieta finds herself battered by one calamity after another, functioning as the unwitting conduit for the film’s maelstrom of transferred trauma.
Almodóvar again exhibits an easy expertise with reconfiguring a once-disreputable genre—here the fatalistic, gloom-tinged woman’s picture—into a revisionist parable marked by stylistic deftness and wide-ranging empathy. The fact that such an approach is now customary, however, points out how formulaic and familiar this trademark form of pastiche has become. For years, the filmmaker’s greatest asset has been his ability to gloss up licentious content with technical bravado, while never soft-pedaling the inherent tackiness of his material. Now, firmly entrenched in a venerable old-master phase, one less geared toward free-wheeling shock cinema than the honing of fundamentals and recycling of ideas, he’s taken to drawing as heavily from his own oeuvre as from external inspirations. The result is an echo chamber of reconfigured conflicts, repeated moments, and rehashed storylines which, despite its visual potency, signals a return to the rut he’d attempted to steer out from (to varying degrees of success) in his two previous films.
Nonetheless, it’s always pleasant to see such a loving preservation of classic-studio formalism, with production design playing an essential role in the dispensation of narrative, its concerns routed through a carefully conceived use of color, costume, and location. At a time when such ostentatious, old-fashioned spectacle has largely become synonymous with over-determined, lifeless filmmaking, Almodóvar still manages to command large enough budgets to carry off personalized visions of humanistic grandeur.
Here at least, the predominance of repetition finds a function, as the lynchpin of a mostly visual portrayal of pain making its way down through the generations. Something as simple as a vibrant textile pattern, reappearing later in the story in a significant swath of wallpaper, therefore assumes a huge amount of dramatic weight, silently articulating the anguish contained beneath these glamorous façades and beautiful faces.
Yet Almodóvar’s object-oriented approach, while breezily dynamic and effective at communicating the broad outlines of Julieta’s struggles, ends up blocking off the deeper emotional access that Munro’s stories so effortlessly attain. The use of gothic-novel tropes like the infirm, mothballed wife, the drowned lover, and the malicious housekeeper, all expanded from small fringe details in the source material to blazing stylistic signifiers here, strips away simplicity and courts irony in a manner that mutes the main story’s effect. For all the empathy afforded her, Julieta is ultimately just another of these emblematic, garishly conveyed figures, a beautiful creature caught up in a sensational drama that tries to naturally emphasize her plight while still indulging in grotesque stereotypes and barely muted soap-operatic excess.
As Almodóvar’s touch has softened with time, his depiction of women has also mellowed, from majestic whirlwind viragoes to delicately shaded human beings, but the prevailing focus on exteriors assures that his heroines remain dazzling aesthetic templates first, fully realized characters second, their true centers only fleetingly visible beneath all these scintillating surfaces.