Directed by Pedro Almodovar
In Julieta a mother grapples with the trauma of losing her daughter. We meet her first in the ‘present,’ where she puts a sudden end to a move from Madrid to Portugal when she sees Beatriz, her daughter’s childhood best friend. It’s seeing Beatriz which breaks the dam and floods back memories and thoughts that Julieta had worked so hard to put behind her.
She goes home and begins writing a letter to her daughter, Antia, about how she met Antia’s father, Xoan, and how certain events transpired which, we figure, led to the distance between them. At this point in the story Julieta has not seen Antia in over twelve years. Her daughter, after she moved out when she was 18, went to a spiritual retreat and was inclined to cut off all contact with her mother, whom she came to blame for her father’s death.
It’s a heartbreaking story, a surprisingly tender, kind and fragile depiction of love, guilt and bitterness that evolves over time thanks to tragedy and the ways we grapple with tragedy and look for a cause, if only because subconsciously it allows us to maintain some sense of order in the face of chaos.
As Julieta writes her letter we will cover about two decades of her own past, from the night she met Xoan and conceived Antia, up until Antia’s departure and Julieta’s subsequent desperate search for her daughter. It begins in almost melodramatic fashion, everything bright and flashy, and Julieta’s and Xoan’s romance roaring like a bonfire. Certain moments are kind of silly and ostentatious, but they do certainly speak to their sudden passion. Later moments will go the other direction and lean into Julieta’s depression.
A chance encounter with an older man on a train, and then soon after Xoan, acts as a sort of inciting incident for the subtext of the film. Julieta is approached by an older man who bluntly points out that they’re both alone and so should keep each other company. Unnerved, she excuses herself from the train compartment and then meets Xoan. Later that night as the train pulls away from the next station the older man throws himself in front of the train. Julieta is racked with guilt that she could and should have done something, a guilt that is only assuaged by the hots she has for Xoan.
From there she quickly moves in with him, they have their daughter, and things seem more or less perfect for the next ten-ish years, at least putting aside Xoan’s leering housekeeper who never seems comfortable with Julieta around.
One day, after Antia has gone off to summer camp, Julieta is teased with vague information from that departing housekeeper, and she realizes Xoan has been conducting an affair with his friend Ava, off and on over the course of years. Troubled by this, Julieta takes some time to be alone, and Xoan, troubled by how troubled she is, goes out fishing. He gets caught in a terrible storm and is killed.
Julieta and her daughter move into Madrid, and Julieta suffers from a long bout of depression. Antia and her friend, Beatriz, help take dutiful care of Julieta. By the time Antia moves out of the house we get the impression that Julieta is still raw with the pain of losing her husband.
Then when Antia tells Julieta, through a proxy, that she will not come back, Julieta is forced to wonder why. It’s only years later when Ava, on her own death bed, tells Julieta that Antia had learned from the leering housekeeper why Xoan was out on the boat in that storm, how it had come after a fight between him and Julieta. Antia used that moment to blame Julieta for her father’s death.
And yeah, writing this all out it sounds pretty melodramatic, but sh*t it was crushing in the moment. Grief sucks, trauma, guilt, all of it is terrible, and seeing the ways people can turn on each other in response to grief will never not be troubling. We want answers, explanations, reasons for what happened. It’s easier to blame someone or something than to figure that bad things can just… happen. On some level it must make us feel safe at night, to know that there is some order to life and its ups and downs. Down the line you might find that you’re able to ascribe meaning to all the things that have come before, in all their unpredictability. “That’s life,” you can say, but in the moment you struggle to navigate through the turbulence, to figure out why this happened, what it means and who are you because of it.
And so Julieta has to struggle with this herself but then so too does she have to endure her daughter’s own journey, as it so clearly affects her. She must relive all that guilt but then again the feeling of loss, and it’s heartbreaking but even more than that just frightening to watch, her utter isolation. She has a certain fragility that Antia may have found draining over time, having to literally pick her up out of the bath during the most severe moments of her depression, but we’re led to believe that Antia’s reasons for separation don’t have to do with Julieta’s pain but her own pain, for blaming her mother.
There is a somewhat happy ending, one that ties or is set to tie everything together, but the real joy, I think, comes before that. It’s when Julieta meets the man with whom she is about to move to Portugal in the film’s opening minutes, Lorenzo. It comes after she has done much of the work to put the pain of losing her daughter behind her. She moves to a new apartment and removes any trace of her daughter. On one hand it feels a bit callous and yet it’s understandable. She has dealt with the grief, and now she’s trying her best to keep living, the only way she knows how.
And that’s when she meets Lorenzo, a man to whom she never once talks about her daughter. While he is no answer to the mystery surrounding her daughter’s disappearance, he is yet something of a distraction but a meaningful one. It’s with him that she learns to live again, and should her narration be believed she does in fact live. She comes back to life, at least until seeing Beatriz throws her into a tailspin of memory and pain.
And I think maybe that’s just as important, someone or something like Lorenzo. We can look so desperately for answers and meaning, but contentedness and conviction might just come back when you stop asking the same questions, not when every question has been answered.
Up Next: Spartan (2004), Talk to Her (2002), Volver (2006)