Wide Awake
by Mayukh Sen

Dir. Pedro AlmodĂłvar, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics

When Pedro Almodóvar initially conceived his twentieth feature film, Julieta, he wanted Meryl Streep to play the title role at three different stages in her life—20, 40, 60. Almodóvar eventually decided to return to Spain and shoot in his native tongue, fearful of filming outside his geographical and linguistic comfort zone. Had the collaboration materialized, perhaps it would’ve served as a much-needed jolt of energy for two great artists who’ve plateaued in recent years. Indeed, the standard complaint about this chapter of Almodóvar’s career recalls what is sometimes said of Streep: he appears to have grown risk-averse, following both critical and popular acceptance, and his films have become more tame and genteel as a casualty.

The common critical refrain with Almodóvar is that he’s two different filmmakers. At times, he is the madcap lunatic with broad comic leanings. At others, he is the man who unspools the interior lives of women through melodrama like so many of cinema’s estrogen obsessives before him, like Cukor, Sirk, and Fassbinder. On occasion, these two competing strands reconcile, as they did in All About My Mother. Yet his output in the decade since 2006’s Volver, from Broken Embraces to The Skin I Live In to I’m So Excited, has lacked the charge and spontaneity of his finest work. Julieta has awoken him from this recent stupor.

Like All About My Mother, Julieta is about a bereaved mother, and she is played by two women at separate stages in her life: in her forties by Emma Suárez, and then in her twenties by Adriana Ugarte. We first meet Julieta when she has grown private and forlorn. Julieta hasn’t seen her daughter, Antía (Priscilla Delgado as an adolescent, Blanca Parés when she is older), in twelve years, and she has spent those intervening years battling depression. Just as she is about to move to Portugal from Spain with her lover, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), she, by chance, runs into Bea (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of Antía. Bea alerts Julieta that Antía is now living in Lake Como with her three kids, a revelation that sends Julieta into an emotional tailspin. Julieta then abandons her initial plans to go to Portugal and moves back into the building where she raised Antía, and begins to revisit the time of Antía's conception. She spends the film sifting through the drudgery of her past to make sense of her mistakes.

We flash back to 1989, when Julieta is on an overnight train. Here she is played by Ugarte, spiky-haired and costumed like a Jem and the Holograms character, blue fisherman’s turtleneck, and large red earrings to boot. Ugarte’s Julieta seems like an entirely different woman from Suárez’s—more impulsive, unbridled, passionate. She is entertaining the portentous musings of her older male train-mate, and she grows bored with him, misconstruing his cries for help as sexual advances. Spooked, she leaves the shared seating compartment and goes to the dining car, where she meets an impossibly handsome Galician fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), whose wife has been comatose for years.

The journey is marred by a tragedy for which Julieta can’t help but assume a modicum of responsibility—the train shrieks to a halt; the man whom Julieta just walked out on committed suicide by jumping off the train. To ease her sadness, Xoan and Julieta have sex on the train, and this chance encounter begets a daughter, Antía. After Xoan’s wife dies, Julieta and Xoan marry, yet the guilt of this episode forecasts greater tragedy that rears its head later in their marriage, culminating with Antía abandoning her mother upon reaching adulthood.

As in Volver, another Almodóvar film predicated on the estrangement between mother and daughter, Julieta’s narrative is labyrinthine, riddled with eleventh-hour twists that recast earlier events in a more urgent light. Such revelations give earlier throwaway gestures greater weight and meaning. In fact, the film is a collage of plot points that stay constant throughout Almodóvar’s career—a mother searching for her child (All About My Mother), the fraught mother-daughter relationship interrupted by abandonment (Volver), even a comatose wife (Talk to Her)—but there is less emotional excess here than in any of those films, even the comparatively austere Talk to Her. This signals something of a shift for Almodóvar. “I battled a lot with the actresses’ tears, against the physical need to cry,” Almodóvar told El País in March. “What I wanted was dejection—the thing that stays inside after years and years of pain.”

Almodóvar’s sobriety here befits his unlikely source material—a trio of short stories from Canadian writer Alice Munro’s Runaway. At first glance, the two artists possess discordant sensibilities, with Munro’s plaintive moodiness a seeming mismatch for Almodóvar’s lunacy (Sarah Polley’s Away from Her, also adapted from a Munro, offers quite a different interpretation). Almodóvar’s latest films have felt wanting for this very reason—though I’m So Excited was an aberration, he’s largely mellowed the eccentricities that once endeared audiences to him.

And yet the film has more rhythm than anything else he’s done in the past decade, and its successes lie primarily in the way he structures the film as a two-hander between his actresses. Critics often speak of Almodóvar’s fascination with women, but these so-called women’s pictures tend to gravitate around certain muses—Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Penélope Cruz. His most recent with Cruz, Broken Embraces, felt rote, as if their collaboration had exhausted its potential. Almodóvar has worked with neither Suárez nor Ugarte before, and for this reason the film feels fresh, as if Almodóvar is working in an unfamiliar register. They are two very different performers, a fact that becomes increasingly evident by Almodóvar’s characteristic extreme close-ups. Ugarte has large, milk-saucer eyes that communicate alertness, while Suárez appears sullen from the minute we meet her.

Ugarte is particularly skillful in suggesting that the Julieta we meet on that train will, one day, become the withdrawn Suárez. As the film goes on, Ugarte’s body language becomes bulkier as she dissolves into near catatonia. This culminates in a scene, already justly celebrated, wherein Antía is rubbing her mother’s hair clean after a bath. Ugarte’s head disappears underneath that towel, and Suárez's face emerges as a total shell of the vibrant, youthful woman we’d known before. The sequence is balletic. Ugarte had already externalized Julieta’s trauma so adeptly that the transition between the two performers is seamless.

It is through these two women, and the way he directs them, that Almodóvar realizes what he terms a “cinema of women” that is more fine-tuned than his previous films. The closest he’s come to this previously was in Cecilia Roth’s work in All About My Mother, a performance devoid of histrionics even as chaos swarmed around her. She was a quiet center of gravity, and the film derived much of its power by having Roth as its anchor—a mother pining for her child, a feeling of loss that Julieta builds on.

The anecdote about Streep would no doubt support the popular thesis that Almodóvar, almost 67, has aged into a filmmaker of compromise, as if the once fearless director is now paralyzed by fear of broadening his horizons. With Julieta, though, he works off a grand canvas without sacrificing intimacy or insight. To speak of this film as a slight entry in Almodóvar’s filmography would betray his genius; he is the rare filmmaker who can explicate upon a woman’s grief without exploiting it. In Julieta, Almodovar toys with this thematic occupation, but he does so with unfamiliar faces. And Ugarte and Suárez have coaxed a more observant filmmaker out of him, giving his filmmaking a needed jolt of energy.