It’s invariably interesting when an adapter of a literary work transfers the plot and characters of said work to a new country or cultural context. In this vein, the Festival de Cannes 2016 Competition has already offered The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s gleefully intoxicating take on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, which transports the action of the 2002 novel from Victorian England to Korea and Japan to sensational effect.
Now Pedro Almodóvar presents Julieta in Competition, an adaptation of Alice Munro’s “Chance”, “Soon”, and “Silence” (from Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway) that shifts the setting of the story sequence from Ontario and Vancouver to Galicia and Madrid.
While the results don’t come close to matching The Handmaiden for impact, and the movie unravels rather badly in its final 20 minutes, Julieta does at least rank as one of the more palatable of the director’s recent efforts, following the intermittently ingenious but rather rancid body horror of The Skin I Live In (2011) and the poor airplane farce I’m So Excited! (2013).
Munro’s Runaway actually made an appearance in The Skin I Live In, as the appropriate reading material brought to Elena Anaya’s incarcerated Vicente/Vera in one scene. Almodóvar has long harbored a desire to adapt Munro’s work, but struggled over the years to find the right approach. Superficially, at least, this author and this director may seem odd bedfellows. Yet, you only have to open Runaway and read a sentence like “All Juliet’s enjoyable experience of men had been in fantasy” (p.71) to sense a kinship between them.
In many ways, indeed, Julieta is fairly faithful to the outlines of Munro’s plot — until it isn’t. Interestingly, Almodóvar begins the film with the pivotal encounter with which the story sequence ends, adding an immediate atmosphere of intrigue and suspense, albeit one that isn’t quite sustained. The main events of the story are preserved: a fateful encounter on a train; the death of a fisherman at sea; and, most crucially, a child’s sudden and unexplained severing of ties with the mother she appeared to deeply love.
Alongside Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage and Carol Shields’s Unless, Munro’s text was one of several narratives about disappearing daughters that were published in North America post-9/11. Now the movie feels all-of-a-piece with Almodovar’s work, its exploration of three generations of mothers and daughters echoes his 2006 Volver, in particular.
Almodóvar originally planned to call the adaptation “Silence” (until Martin Scorsese nabbed that title for his new film) and it’s a preferable choice, since what the film brings out quite beautifully is that silence belongs not only to the daughter (renamed Antía, here) in her self-willed separation, but to the mother, Julieta, too, who refuses to tell new acquaintances about her absent child, essentially writing her out of her life as a survival strategy.
In keeping with that notion of holding back, Almodóvar’s formal approach is relatively restrained here, with little humor or levity throughout (although Rossy de Palma gets some laughs as soon as she appears as a self-righteous maid). That’s not to say that the director and his D.P. Jean-Claude Larrieu don’t give us plenty to look at, though: from vibrant red fabrics and a huge Lucian Freud self-portrait to a series of elaborate cakes (which end up thrown, distressingly, into the rubbish bin). But, the tone is generally subdued, with the film’s melancholy encapsulated by the bluesy, classically-inflected contours of Alberto Iglesias’s delicate score.
As so often with Almodóvar, the film benefits considerably from strong turns from the actresses, with Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez a fine match as the younger and older Julieta. The transition scene, with the latter taking over from the former, is especially good, and Suárez powerfully shows Julieta getting sucker-punched by grief and incomprehension. On the other hand, the male roles are weak, with Darío Grandinetti (so good as the lovely, lachrymose Marco in 2002’s Talk To Her) particularly wasted as a sympathetic paramour.
Julieta remains engaging until the final third, when Almodóvar, less at ease with ambiguity than Munro, starts piling on the excess plot and — worse yet — adding motivations and explanations where a tactful “silence” would have been considerably more effective. Also much more sentimental about motherhood than Munro, he’s made a film that’s all too overtly about the contagious burden of maternal guilt, and his recourse to mediocre soap operatics renders the movie banal and obvious in its final stages. Almodóvar is not above having a character knocked over in the street in order to bring about a hasty reconciliation, and Julieta is one of the very few films presented at Cannes this year that might have benefited from being longer, since a sense of depth and texture seems missing.
Should you raise that objection, Almodóvar is ready for you. In the press kit, he claims that “almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen” (you have to love that “almost”!) and that “Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you already know the story.” Spanish audiences haven’t been so sure: already on release in Spain, the picture has performed disappointingly at the box office. Despite its flaws and compromises, though, there are enough intriguing elements to make a second engagement with Almodóvar’s latest a fairly appealing prospect.