Julieta & All About Almodovar

The twentieth feature film of director Pedro Almodóvar, Julieta picks up his grand themes of passion, obsession, loss, women with mysterious pasts, and phalluses with gusto. Julieta is an affluent, seemingly content woman living in Madrid and planning a move to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo. Walking in the street one day, she bumps into a friend of her estranged daughter, Antía, and so begins a flashback to Julieta’s former life and loves. Adapted from a series of short stories by Alice Munro, Almodóvar’s latest work bears his stained-bright-red auteur’s fingerprints, sharing themes and stylistic tropes with his earlier offerings.

The continuity throughout Almodóvar’s movies as he has grown from an underground artsy figure in Madrid, delivering shocking, subversive images to newly post-Franco Spanish audiences, to a global superstar with an Oscar and a string of arthouse-populist crossover hits, is striking. Four 80s Almodóvar films screening as part of a retrospective at GFT – Dark Habits (1983), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Law of Desire (1987), and the director’s first internationally successful hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – give a taster of this consistency and insight into a master’s oeuvre. 

Notable throughout Almodóvar’s cannon is a comical self-reflexivity. His films draw attention to their own artifice by brimming with artist and writer characters. In Dark Habits, Sister Rat, played by comedy goddess and Almodóvar regular, Chus Lampreave, is a nun producing lurid trashy novels under a pseudonym to escape the boredom of the convent. Law of Desire, the director’s most obviously autobiographical outing, features a successful, gay filmmaker, Pablo, with vulgar film titles to his name such as ‘The Paradigm of the Muscle.’ Women on the Verge meanwhile forefronts a character who, along with her cheating former lover, does Spanish voiceovers for English language films for a living, leading her to collapse in pain when she hears her ex delivering cheesy movie lines about lost love at their workplace. Providing a great deal of his trademark humour, these self-referential moments appear to make fun of Almodóvar’s own plot lines, which are themselves stuffed with sex, melodrama, and Hollywood clichés. However, they also form the backbone of an extremely politically astute appraisal of the world. Paul Julian Smith recognises the director’s “critique of representation,”[1] which could be said to flag up hypocrisy in media and other types of imagery. For example, the fact a sensationalist writer is a religious woman in Dark Habits points to the deception of the icons and fictions put forward by the Catholic Church. The carnally suggestive names of Law of Desire’s director character’s films indicate the thin layer of polite civility covering up modern society’s insatiable obsession with its sexual urges. Women on the Verge’s equating of its chauvinist villain with Hollywood ‘heroes’ provides an exposition of film and television’s role in maintaining patriarchy. Manifesting in a camp aesthetic, this self-reflexivity is therefore indicative of a serious use of comedy and Almodóvar’s apparent frivolity is actually brilliant commentary on the social order. Julieta carries on this trend by including a character, Ava, who is an artist specialising in phallic sculptures, a dry observation on the performativity of masculinity in this latest tale.

Almodóvar’s political analyses have consistently involved significant focus on the lives of women. Several of his movies, including Dark Habits and Women on the Verge comprise all-female ensembles that pay tribute to the strength and complexity of women’s roles within a misogynist culture. Dark Habits in particular luxuriates in a set of powerful females who do everything it takes to keep their convent running in time of economic crisis, or are widows happy to have cast off the burden of their husband/boyfriend. What Have I Done to Deserve This? is a satirical tale of domestic violence and a meditation on the exploitation of domestic labour. Though, ultimately, its hero, Gloria (Carmen Maura - another member of the Almodóvar troupe), who also has to deal with a homosexual son who runs off with the dentist and a greedy mother-in-law, fights back in an empowering act of self-defense. Julieta is another melodrama spotlighting an ostensibly tragic woman and her relationships with men and her family, continuing Almodóvar’s fixation. He has claimed that women “carry reality,”[2] implying his centering of them is a form of realism whereby social undercurrents are brought to the surface. This depiction of societal truth through making women the focal point – within a sea of burlesque gags and camp ribaldry – goes a long way to pinning down the director’s unique style. 

Another unmistakable feature of Almodóvar’s output is his bold and unfailing use of the colour red. The latter marks lust. Yolanda, a cabaret singer fleeing after her boyfriend dies of a dodgy heroin dose, makes a dramatic entrance in a sparkling red gown at Dark Habits’ convent, where she is a source of desire for the lesbian, drug-addicted Mother Superior. The hue also intimates danger, as in Antonio Banderas’ character appearing in a backward red cap after he sleeps with Pablo in Law of Desire and begins his descent into murderous stalker mode. It’s rarely explicitly stated but in Almodóvar’s films, red always feels like it represents Spain and Spanishness. Female protagonists are most often the ones draped in the colour, posing the notion that, as a corollary to their pivotal place within a social realist portrayal, women make up the blood and guts of a nation. The prolific use of red is further handy in conveying and foreshadowing plot. For instance, in Women on the Verge, Pepa and Marisa are both dressed in crimson, suggesting an alignment and, indeed, enemies at the narrative’s start, they bond in the final scene. 

Julieta is thus a mouth-watering addition to the Almodóvar collection, carrying on his traditions of self-reference, celebrating women, and painting every Spanish town in sight red. Both fans of, and those new to, the Spanish virtuoso will revel in the chance to place his shiny new film in context alongside its dazzling antecedents.

Helen Wright, freelance film programmer and writer
August 2016

[1] Paul Julian Smith, Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar (New York, London: Verso, 1994), p.4.

[2] Quoted in Robbie Collin, ‘Pedro Almodovar on new film Julieta, turning down Meryl Streep and the ‘dictatorship of the politically correct,’The Telegraph, 21 Aug 2016, accessed 24 Aug 2016 . (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fil...)

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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