At the start of JULIETA, the folds of a red cloth expose a recognizable lushness. This is “Un film de Almodóvar.”  The cloth belongs, when the shot pulls back, to a dressing gown worn by Julieta, played by Emma Suárez, no less luminous now than she was in the Julio Medem films in which I first saw her in the ‘90s. It is not long until, on a street in Madrid, she is recognized by Béa (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her long-missing daughter, who comments politely that she “hasn’t changed” in the ensuing years. This plants an ironic seed. Julieta sets out to write a memoir addressed to her daughter, Antía, of whose whereabouts she got a clue from Béa. The story she writes we see in flashback to the ‘80s. Her younger self is played by Adriana Ugarte, who couldn’t be, by strict visual criteria, a younger Suárez (by reference, for example, to those films by Medem) but seems, despite that, to be the same Julieta.

The two share a deeper persona. Almodóvar understands that memoir is a species of fiction, just as the latter, in turn, is part autobiography. The younger woman is seen through the imagination of her older peer. No great effort is made to make the two of them look alike: their hair is worn blond (Ugarte’s covers her ears), in type they are roughly similar, they’ve adopted each other’s gait. Nor, despite their differences, is there a complete segregation of the two in past and present timelines. The younger transforms into the older at a specific point during a continuous scene (anticipated minutes earlier, in a different scene, by a subliminal trick of the eye). It happens matter-of-factly, at a moment of psychological crisis, on the pivot of which Julieta becomes, herself, a different person. Julieta was Ugarte, now she is Suárez.

The handling of the double-casting isn’t just deft and graceful, it is meaningful. Julieta recalls her younger self out of a guilt she ought not to feel, for actions taken without ill intent whose bad consequences she could not have anticipated, including the rift with Antía, which she now hopes to close. JULIETA is about the relationship between action and identity; what we do, in the guilty imagination, defines who we are. We learn of Julieta’s actions as the older one narrates the memoir and the younger one enacts them. That the Julieta of Ugarte isn’t a replica of Suárez’s puts a necessary distance between the person and the act. This is not to say that Julieta rejects her former self, but acquires, potentially, a perspective she lacked before, of the tenuousness of the self as an accumulation of action and experience.

Who understands the glamour of memory better than Almodóvar? We are prey in our lives to associating the present with the past, in glances, sounds, the madeleine of Proust, the ring of a phrase, the scenes we think we have seen before. Hitchcock, Highsmith and Kubrick are present like forgotten dreams in JULIETA. So are Almodóvar’s own past films: the gender ambiguous crowd that Béa hangs with, the solicitous frown of Darío Grandinetti (redolent of Talk to Her), and the iconic Rossy de Palma’s turn as a disapproving housekeeper. Melodrama infuses his images – those in flashback even more so – as though it were a color. The last gazes of the departed (for there is death in this story) flash like lightning on the goodbyes of the present. Sights seen through windows and doors hang for a moment, like paintings; through those of a moving train they are a sort of cinema, and at night those panes reflect back to us the film we are seeing. The way a man sits on a chair recalls the shape of a sculpture we have seen before. Allusions to water, that old image of origin and rebirth, flow freely. It is frozen as snow, falls as rain, sits pristine in a Galician bay, riles to a storm, cleanses in the bath, is recalled from Homer, whose Odysseus rejected an offer of immortality by venturing to the high seas.

Not many filmmakers are as literary as Almodóvar. He has a special affinity for women who write in English, like Dorothy Parker, Highsmith and, in this case, Alice Munro. JULIETA splices together three of her stories with complete coherence: his story combination is as artful as Chandler’s in The Big Sleep. Not knowing the originals, it would be pure speculation which strands were previously separate. It is not, in any case, the plotting that makes this a great film, but its unity of style and theme, Almodóvar’s forte, at which he is here at his height. His actors could not be finer for his purposes, not just Suárez and Ugarte, but Jenner, Grandinetti, de Palma, Daniel Grao and Inma Cuesta, along with Sara Jiménez and Blanca Parés, who play Antía at different ages. They soak up the mood like a blotter, ambiguous and soft.

JULIETA stains you with something. It ends not with resolution but possibility. What will happen next lingers as a question. Feeling, that constant of the melodramatic imagination, persists, and suspense, its ever sibling, follows after.

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