“Remember, you don’t like goodbyes”
It began as many things: an adaptation of Nobel Prize winning Canadian writer Alice Munro‘s three connected short stories from her book Runaway (“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”), Pedro Almodóvar‘s English-language debut with its venue switching from Vancouver to New York, and a starring vehicle for Meryl Streep. But Julieta eventually became none of them. It’s still credited as an adaptation, yet Almodóvar would be the first to say that he took pains to make it his own not only in content but context with the whole shifting to Spain. He unearthed his original script years later to catalyze this transition and find a comfort level with the material that surpassed his insecurities about tackling a film in English. What notably remained were its themes of guilt and regret.
Those notions hit hard from the start as Julieta (Emma Suárez) and beau Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) work towards their move from Madrid to Portugal. We don’t know who they are or what has precipitated the action, but she’s keen to leave without turning back. Until, of course, she runs into a figure from her distant past. This woman Beatriz (Michelle Jenner) was an old friend of Julieta’s daughter Antía (Blanca Parés) who coincidentally had just run into her in Italy. Suddenly Julieta’s permanent smile and sense of excitement is gone and replaced by confusion, intrigue, and a sliver of terror. All she wants now is to discover what Antía said. How she looked. How she seemed. It’s as though a ghost rose from the dead.
Welcome to the mystery of what happened to Antía. It’s initially disorienting as it begins with so many questions and very few answers. This girl obviously means everything to Julieta—she abruptly cancels her move to Portugal and relationship with Lorenzo—and yet there’s no evidence of her in the apartment. Julieta doesn’t even dare utter her name and Lorenzo appears to know nothing about her or what could have ignited such a rapid change of heart. He knew his love was always hiding something important, but he never pried. They created a life together and it bloomed. If not for fate intervening, they would have continued to do so. But now Antía is real again. Years of repression are erased in an instant. She takes over everything.
From here Almodóvar takes us back twenty-plus years through the writing of a letter doubling as memoir. Julieta has decided to pour her feelings out and address them to the daughter she hasn’t thought about for too long. It all starts with a serendipitous meeting on a train. Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) begins a conversation with a fisherman named Xoan (Daniel Grao). She’s a classical literature teacher with aspirations of being more than a substitute and he’s a soon-to-be widower whose wife is in a coma. Sparks fly, peripheral tragedy strikes in a way that makes it hit closer to home than perhaps it should, and the story of Antía’s conception is born. Her life then progresses forward as more hardship and pain is gradually introduced.
It’s high melodrama like most Almodóvar films, but everything happens so quickly that it seems more so this time. The amount of coincidences necessary for the plot to advance how it does toes the line of disbelief way too closely and if not for the wonderful performances by Suárez and Ugarte, it probably would have fallen over that cliff. The mirroring of Xoan’s less than pristine life to that of Julieta’s father (Joaquín Notario) is very on-the-nose; the pain Antía must feel throughout to lead her character to do what she does understandable if not revealed as though a throwaway detail sparking a rapid conclusion leaving a lot to be desired. The rushed transition from over an hour of depression to five minutes of optimism is underwhelming.
What saves Julieta from drowning under the weight of its contrivances is the delicacy with which Almodóvar and his lead actresses handle everything emotionally. If you’re going to throw the kitchen sink at your star, you need to ensure she can handle it with authenticity and complexity. Suárez and Ugarte do exactly that with relationships to people lesser hands would make villains (Inma Cuesta‘s sculptor Ava) and “villains” they’d make saints (Rossy de Palma‘s housekeeper Marian). As tragedies pile up Julieta begins to disintegrate while Antía must pick up the pieces. It’s a volatile dynamic that is handled with grace until the opportunity for escape arrives. I think the evolution from sadness to rage on behalf of Suárez in terms of her daughter’s actions is an unforgettable experience.
What seemed like a quest to find Antía becomes a journey into the psychological landscape of the titular role. As the story continues we learn Antía isn’t missing. She’s not lost. It’s Julieta who has lost her. So the writings displayed as flashbacks aren’t deciphering a mystery as much as exposing her role in life’s outcomes. How much blame falls on Julieta’s shoulders and how much of that is earned? How you measure that answer says everything about the kind of person you are. And the fact Julieta believes it’s all her fault exposes the truth behind that happy, confident woman we met alongside Lorenzo at the start. Suárez has the heavy lifting as a result of transitioning between new life and old, but don’t discount Ugarte’s excellence.
The latter is the one who must endure much of that pain in the moment without hindsight to question meaning or effect. She’s the one who experiences death and disappointment, her strength carrying her forward with the help of those she ultimately ends up losing as well. We see life in her teaching style at school and her sexuality at home. We see her capacity for forgiveness right alongside the unavoidable necessity for anger that eventually lets it occur. Ugarte becomes the shell of a vibrant soul Suárez embodies for most of her screen time. Both are allowed a brief moment of joy before it’s ripped away thanks to the silent frustrations we all keep internal for fear of driving those we love out of our lives.
This is Julieta‘s profound success. Above conveniences in plot and soap opera-y dramatics lays a central character we relate to in how she creates that which she hopes to avoid. If she lives with the pain of those who are gone, she believes that maybe she can hold onto the love of those that remain. But this silent struggle is never hidden. Those around us sense it enough so that it grabs hold of them too from the frustration of feeling like they aren’t trusted to understand. Suddenly they feel they’ve done something wrong because she is hiding and the unknown begins to eat away every last vestige of hope. Only time can heal wounds and let us open up about that which we never felt we could.
 Left to right: Daniel Grao as Xoan and Adriana Ugarte as Earlier Julieta @ El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to right: Sara Jiménez Teenage Beatriz and Adriana Ugarte as Earlier Julieta @ El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Emma Suárez as Later Julieta @ El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics