Two actresses play the title role in Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, one before and one after the central catastrophe in the eponymous heroine’s life.
Beginning the tale in medias res, Emma Suárez plays Julieta as a survivor of personal tragedies, attempting to rebuild her life with her attentive lover, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). Meeting an old acquaintance on the street in Madrid, she is jolted into a remembrance of the past and its defeats.
In the extended flashback that follows, Adriana Ugarte plays Julieta as a young literature teacher who meets a handsome fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), while traveling on a train. Brought together by the shocking suicide of a fellow passenger, the two make love, then continue to their separate destinations.
Not long after, Xoan writes to Julieta. Pregnant with his child, she arrives in his village to find that his wife, who has been in a coma, has just died. Julieta and Xoan form a joyous union under the jealous eyes of the housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma), a Mrs. Danvers type who disapproves of her modern new mistress. Marian becomes devoted, however, to the couple’s daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), who grows into a lissome adolescent occupied with shooting hoops with her best friend, Beatriz (Sara Jiménez).
One day while Antia is at summer camp, Marian reveals to Julieta that Xoan has slept with a former lover while living with Julieta, and Julieta and Xoan quarrel. Before they can make up, he goes out in his boat, is caught in a storm, and drowns.
Julieta returns to Madrid, where she is cared for by Antia and Beatriz. It is here that the unblemished Adriana Ugarte is replaced in the title role by Emma Suárez, Julieta aged and unstrung by loss.
But Julieta’s misfortunes are not at an end. Antia disappears, severing all ties with her mother. Her actions are mysterious, possibly a reaction to Marian’s telling her of mother’s role in her father’s death. Or perhaps Antia is impelled by other, barely traceable, sources of guilt and desperation.
Unable to recapture her daughter, Julieta gradually mends—until the chance encounter years later on the street in Madrid. The long-lost acquaintance she meets—twice, in fact—is the grown-up Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), the great friend of Antia’s youth. In their conversations, Beatriz reveals that, in the course of a love affair between them, Antia had become consumed with a fanatical spirituality that drove them apart.
Julieta once more descends into depression, giving up her relationship with Lorenzo to wander dazed about the city. Watching protectively from a distance, he is able to save her when she steps in front of a moving car.
Antia, the progeny of free spirits, seems to be her mother’s opposite, cold and unbending—the perfect weapon to wound the grieving Julieta. But a subplot indicates that she is in fact her mother’s daughter. For years, Julieta has snubbed her own father for forming a lasting liaison with his maid while his bedridden wife was still alive.
The source materials for Julieta are three stories—not one—by Alice Munro. As a result of being a mélange, the film’s plot is propelled by collisions, coincidences, impulses, and reversals that are often outside the characters’ conscious control. The director seems to have left these rough edges in his collage to create texture and openings for interpretation. What is the significance, for example, of the majestic stag loping beside the train on the night that Julieta and Xoan meet? How is it that Julieta and Ava, Xoan’s former mistress, reconcile and become fast friends? And how fascinating that the adult Antia, whose defection plays such an important role in Julieta’s life, is represented only in snippets of dialog by her former lover, Beatriz. In spite of this very lifelike portrayal of ambiguous motivations (for human beings rarely act for a single reason alone), guided by Almodóvar’s humanism, these characters’ drama must finally revolve toward forgiveness and reconciliation.