Julieta: A sad yet sexy tale of love and loss

Written by Pedro Almodovar; adapted from three stories by Alice Munro
Directed by Pedro Almodovar

The opening credits appear over what looks like deep-red curtains. We know we’re in for a lush, romantic story with high emotions.

When we meet the middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez), she seems to have everything she could want: a nice apartment in Madrid, an attentive lover, and plans for a long vacation in Portugal.

Then she runs into a friend of her daughter’s–a daughter who had disappeared from her life ages ago. Julieta responds to this chance encounter by cancelling her Portugal plans and breaking up with her boyfriend.

And so she starts writing a long letter to her missing daughter. That letter, and the film, will reveal the deep, dark secret of her past.

Julieta explains how her much younger self (Adriana Ugarte) fell in love and built a life with a handsome, gentle fisherman (Daniel Grao), and how together they created a wonderful daughter. But Julieta loses first her man, and then her now-adult child.

As one would expect in a Almodovar film, Julieta has a lot of sex, especially in the early part of the flashback. From their first night together on a train and for some time to come, they can barely keep their clothes on in each other’s company. The youthful joy of these scenes set you up for the sad events in the future.

In her happy days, Julieta made some choices that could hurt others, yet she doesn’t always understand when others make similar choices. When she first meets her fisherman, he’s married, but his wife is in a coma and unlikely to recover. Under those conditions, adultery seems understandable. But she can’t except similar behavior in her father, who is having an affair with the young woman he hired to help care for Julieta’s sick and senile mother. Even after her mother died and her father marries the caregiver, Julieta gives them a cold shoulder.

Her daughter will reject her in a far crueler way.

The two actresses who play Julieta give stunning performances. Ugarte slowly matures physically and emotionally throughout the film, with considerable help from some very talented makeup artists. When the flashback started, I realized immediately that this was a different actress playing the same character some 25 or 30 years younger. But I can’t tell you with absolute certainty at what point Suárez took over the role again. (I probably could figure it out if I saw it a second time.)

Julieta is very much about the joys and sorrows that define life. But it’s also about one particular person who has had an exceptional amount of both. It’s a beautiful story, very well told.