Mothers and daughters, the past haunting the present, chance, guilt, remorse and suffering, lots of suffering. Ever since we saw the trailer for his new film, it seemed clear that we, after the forgettable throwback of I’m So Excited, were back in Pedro Almodóvar’s domain, in the world he’s been claiming as his own since at least 1991 when, with High Heels, he showed for the first time his talent for the Douglas Sirk-inspired family melodrama.
And I say that as someone who thinks that Almodóvar’s career, despite being one of the most distinct and easy to identify in the modern film scene, has always revealed the director’s interest in experimenting, evolving and pushing himself further in different directions. If the outrageous comedy or tragicomedy was the preferred form of expression in the early stages, and he reached a peak in that field with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown by the end of the ‘80s, melodrama became his favorite genre across the ‘90s, a decade in which he tried different things in that field until it all coalesced in a film that’s now a classic, 1999’s All About My Mother. But, while it would seem that “melodrama” is still what he’s doing nowadays, I’d say it’s worth considering the different approach he’s been using since 2002’s Talk to Her, a film in which most of the catharses were off-screen, and the abstract concepts he was juggling in the plot, such as the nature of communication between men and women and the role of sex in their relations, seemed to be more important than the emotions that the story might cause. Ever since that film, and with the exception of his masterpiece, Volver, he seems to be more or less consciously erasing the “melo” in his dramas, but I’d say the effort is definitely conscious since 2009’s Broken Embraces.
Much like when he first started doing pure melodramas, the first steps in this new, consciously brainier direction may have been imperfect and not entirely satisfying. Both Broken Embraces and The Skin I Live In were perhaps remote and cold instead of the “dry” he was going for, but Almodóvar has always been faithful to himself and to what he wants to do in each moment. He’s stuck to his guns, and it has finally paid off with Julieta, a pure drama devoid of nearly all the “melo”, a definitely dry exploration of pain and suffering in which tears are absent, the possible dramatic climax is never shown, and catharsis is nothing but a question mark.
Because “Pain” is basically the main subject in this film, which tells the story of Julieta, a woman marked by a loss she can’t even speak of to her closest friends, an absence that, as she says in voiceover near the end, is the only thing that fills her life, and it’s that paradox which informs the film and its style: can void and nothingness be something that fills something, even the spaces? Can absence be filmed when its main trait is that it’s not there? The current life of Julieta, when we first meet her, goes on in spaces that are the most impersonal and toned-down we have seen in an Almodóvar film; gone are the gaudy wallpapers, the extravagant objects and the colorful supporting characters. Gone are even the tears (and Almodóvar has said in interviews that he has mostly forbidden his actresses to cry on screen, allowing them to physically release their suffering only when he yelled “cut!”), and all the audience is allowed to see for a long time is just the ragged face of Emma Suárez, her reluctance to open an envelope, to make a trip, to act or do something that’s filmable and photogenically displays her sadness. The crying face of an actress is not a fetish to relish anymore, and Almodóvar now wants to speak of a deeper suffering, that for which there are no words, no actions and no weeping. Pain is so all-consuming that it has erased everything that’s not just pain itself.
When Julieta starts remembering how she’s arrived at that situation, in flashbacks, or when she goes back to the spaces she inhabited when things were different for her, we do see the director’s trademark colors and shapes, his exuberance, the busy wallpapers, and even Rossy de Palma gets a role. And the contrast is the way he’s found to make that absence filmable: Almodóvar’s and Julieta’s heartbreak of today is the lack of what Almodóvar and Julieta were yesterday (and he makes clear his protagonist, Julieta, is a representation of his own pain when he puts her in front of Lucian Freud’s self-portrait). Through the absence of what was most personal, he makes the most personal portrait of the current self.
At first sight, one problem of the film for the audience may be that they don’t know the source of all that pain until very late in the game (unless they’ve read about the film a bit too much beforehand), which may make it feel, for a long time, as remote or cold as, for instance, Broken Embraces. And while this is a problem that may be common to a few of his most recent films (too much information, and sometimes even the whole point of a film, may be withheld until the final act, keeping the audience at arm’s length until a second viewing), here an attentive view should be more rewarding, because even if one doesn’t know the source of the suffering, that suffering is subtly but expressively rendered in early details that can put a lump in the throat that won’t go away even after the end credits are over. This time the mystery of Julieta’s pain is engaging and moving enough thanks to those details, to Almodóvar’s vivid narration and direction, and also thanks to a committed and affecting performance from Emma Suárez, here probably in the highest point of her career, and it all pays off in a devastating final act, one of the most moving ever filmed by the Spaniard.
One, however, should have learnt by now to trust in the director: very few of his colleagues have the same insight as he has into his own stories, such control over what he wants to say, where he wants to arrive, and all the meanings and implications of the plots he handles. It’s time to realise very few directors working today are able to take a story (even one written by another person, as is the case here) and discover all its secret corners, all the layers and echoes it may contain, and to fill their movies with multiple possible readings and with secrets that always reward subsequent viewings. Sometimes that control, that wish to explore a story so thoroughly that all its possibilities are contained within one movie, can be suffocating, to the point that some of his latest movies have become overcooked, slightly artificial, a bit too brainy and calculated for their own good, with so many mysteries so encrypted that they feel synthetic instead of organic. Fortunately that’s not the case here, and that’s why Julieta is the most mature work out of his recent brainier dramas, those that have been “de-melo-ed”. He again realises all the many facets and perspectives this story of guilt and sadness can have, and he fills the screenplay and the screen with symbols, echoes, characters who subtly and maybe unconsciously repeat behaviours that they reproach in others, with mirror images that suggest a character’s point of view may have been blind… and in that sense this is a brainy drama like its predecessors. But this time he never loses the focus of the main thing he wants to film and express, that unbearable emptiness of absence and the endless pain it leaves, and he also never lets the intellect overcome the sensitivity towards his characters. This way, through a story that may seem on its surface a retread of his usual mother-daughter melodramas, he paints one of the most devastating, dry, yet tactful, perceptive and sensitive portrayals of depression and loneliness seen in recent cinema.