Synopsising a Pedro Almodóvar film is often a fruitless enterprise. His hallmarks are dense characterisations, and plots as twisty and layered as real life. I mean, have you ever heard a summary of Bad Education that gave you even an inkling of what it is like to actually watch the film? But, since I can’t very well show you the whole of Julieta and say, ‘See what I mean?’ I’ll take a stab.
Julieta (Emma Suárez) is a middle-aged woman in Madrid. We first see her packing books, planning to move away to Portugal with her lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti, whom you may remember from Hable con Ella). Randomly on the street, she meets her daughter’s childhood best friend, Beatriz. Julieta tries to be cagey, but treats Beatriz as some kind of oracle; we sense that she is long estranged from her daughter.
Suddenly, Julieta decides she is staying in Madrid. This infuriates Lorenzo, who has been planning the move for over a year. He is too respectful to outright demand an explanation, and Julieta pleads with him not to start demanding. Her pain is buried, nested away beneath protective layers of her persona. But though Lorenzo is not privy to Julieta’s vault, she opens up to the audience, in a letter she begins writing to her daughter.
This leads to the bulk of the film, which is an extended flashback tracking the younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte, from Salvador García Ruiz’s 3some). From any other director, this flashback would be a simple path linking Young Julieta to Present-Day Julieta. But Almodóvar isn’t interested in a simple solution to a central mystery. In fact, Julieta’s daughter never becomes the focus of the film, as the audience might be expecting; she’s always floating just off-centre in Julieta’s consciousness.
The structure of Julieta isn’t quite the narrative arabesque of Almodóvar’s earlier features, with threads becoming unknotted as the film progresses. It’s more like unpacking Schrödinger’s Russian Dolls: it begins with a mystery, which reveals another kind of mystery, nested inside another kind of mystery—and all of these mysteries hover in a state of uncertainty, waiting to see how their resolutions will appear to the characters once unlocked. I was reminded of the apparent randomness of events in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Sometimes, a mystery is solved when you examine it, but only because you examine it. What kind of answer is that?
Julieta is Spain’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and I see no reason not bet on it. Almodóvar is beloved by the Academy, a former winner, and his film features two radiant performances by the actresses playing the title character. It’s biggest debit, which may cause the nominating committee to scratch their heads, is the ending. The final narrative Russian Doll is never really opened. What is inside? The resolution? Yet another mystery? Nothing at all?
The uncertainty is the point. As Joel Coen said of Barton Fink, ‘Where would it get you if something that’s a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn’t get you anywhere.’ I hope this isn’t lost on the Academy, or the audience.