A Modern Tragedy: Pedro Almodóvar’s 'Julieta' & A Two-Question Interview

Adriana Ugarte as Julieta
Adriana Ugarte as Julieta

Pedro Almodóvar’s filmmaking now spans three decades and counting – the director gives no signs of slowing down nor of exhausting his capacity to surprise us. His twentieth feature-film, Julieta, arrives in U.S. theaters on December 21st . This month, Julieta opened the retrospective of the director’s work that will be screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until December 17th, all the films have been restored under the watchful eye of Agustín Almodóvar, his brother and producer.

Among the first things one learns about Julieta, both from the director himself and the journalists writing about his new film, is how much more sober and restrained its tone and color-palette are compared to his previous films. Not a stranger to change nor to the task of challenging himself as an artist, Almodóvar has said that such a tone is in part due to the film’s closeness to its source material, three stories from Alice Munro’s Runaway, as well as to a more Bergman-like insistence on holding the camera close to its characters.

The focus in this film is not so much on the drama that can underpin personal relationships, the kind that no-doubt inspires the broad palette of color, emotion, and personalities that abound in a film like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as it is on the isolation and pain that at once keeps us apart from those we most love and which yet makes us the most palpably human, aligned with the suffering of others. By visually decluttering his film, the director says, he has given his protagonist’s pain room to roam and breathe – and his camera approaches Julieta soberly, with utmost respect for her predicament.

Almodóvar, a filmmaker who loves mixing genres, is instead very exacting about Julieta’s classification: it is not a melodrama, nor even an “Almodrama,” but a pure drama, verging on tragedy. Gone are the vibrant colors, the over-the-top emotion, the abundant tears, the forays into humor, and the occasional breakout into song-and-dance. Instead, we are guided through the recesses of time by the voice of a broken Julieta (Emma Suárez), a woman who has survived devastating loss but may not survive her own hope. As Julieta writes to a daughter she longs to see again, who may or may not ever read her words, the film’s flashbacks take us to meet Julieta’s younger, more luminous self (Adriana Ugarte) – the one yet untouched by pain, the one whose future was still wide-open, the one forging ahead toward unknown adventures rather than confined to roam the streets of Madrid wishing for a belated reunion. The twenty-something Julieta may even be, the director explains, the older Julieta’s fantasized version of her younger self.

Apropos her character’s origins in Munro’s stories and her adventure-seeking spirit, the younger Julieta not only teaches Greek mythology but herself personifies something like a modern Odysseus. The young Julieta begins her journey on a train, which will eventually drop her off by a seashore to live with a fisherman among blue hues and the sound of crashing waves. This is the place where her life will change, where her true journey begins. The older Julieta, by contrast, is more a Virgil-like figure, taking us on a retrospective tour of her personal circles of Hell. The forward-moving journey and the backward-glancing one meet at a determinant moment of loss that irretrievably splits Julieta’s life in half.

The references to mythology are not merely superficial: they bolster the film’s allegiance to tragedy. And tragedy and melodrama are indeed not one and the same. Peter Brooks, a seminal figure in melodrama studies, has described the difference between melodrama and tragedy as pertaining to two different sense deprivations: muteness and blindness. Melodrama, he claims, often includes mute characters because it is a genre predicated on the modern problem of expression: how to convey meaning and how to best direct the capacity to challenge or create a world through words. First and foremost, melodrama is an “expressionist” genre, it careens impassibly toward theater, obsessed as it is with interpreting signs, with probing beyond the surface of things in order to express true emotions – hysterically, if need be.

Tragedy, by contrast, is a genre of insight and illumination: blindness is the metaphor for their negation. And because fate is something that literally blindsides us, it belongs not to melodrama but to tragedy. Fate is irreversible, while melodrama, instead, trusts firmly in the potential for a change of fortune, a happy coincidence, or a lucky chance. Tragedy is plagued by a sense of destiny, it is not interested in producing victims and assigning blame and yet it speaks to the inescapable suffering that is a universal quality of the human condition, ensconced as it is in the passing of time. Melodrama, by contrast, demands that the world become legible, believing that such transparency is the only road to achieving justice. It needs to call out its villains and to acknowledge and rescue its victims. In Almodóvar’s film, Julieta feels an overpowering sense of guilt for the calamities that have plagued her life, yet we, the audience, know that she is guiltless, that she is not to blame for the devastation and, crucially, there is also no one else to blame. In this respect, Julieta is indeed a tragic film.

We live at a moment in time when keeping this difference in mind may prove to be our only recourse for realigning our political discourse. It is not hard to see how much politics is increasingly fed by our insatiable appetite for melodrama: like the wind that stokes a fire. It may, in fact, have just arrived at its point of exhaustion – at least for liberals in the U.S. – in the election of Donald Trump. As Elizabeth Anker has astutely noted about Trump’s galvanizing of melodrama during his campaign: “Trump posits that Americans are the unjust victims of economic hardship and political exploitation, which are manufactured by scary, evil villains who can only be stopped by heroic state actions that will restore a diminished sovereignty.” As we now know, this is an appealing rhetoric that has now proved dangerous – and may yet prove disastrous. (For full article see: Trump’s Melodrama).

On the surface, Julieta does not appear to be a political film. In fact, the director is quite precise in stating that he even took care to leave certain current events off-frame. One salient example: the Prestige oil spill of 2002 that blackened the beaches of Galicia, the location for Julieta’s Odyssey-inspired adventure, and which could have been seductive in its cinematic qualities. But because Julieta’s story has already travelled many miles from its original setting, from Munro’s Ontario to Almodóvar’s Madrid, the fact that the film avoids current sociopolitical contexts allows it to retain an important sense of being both local and universal.

Almodóvar’s restrained and somber film points us in the direction of a new era, requiring that we welcome a new relationship to the world (certainly to his cinematic one), to pain, to struggle, to illumination, and to how we arrive at forgiveness.

Emma Suárez as Julieta
Emma Suárez as Julieta

TWO-QUESTION INTERVIEW

CM: Your films, though never expressly political, have always channeled the energy of specific historical moments: from the liberation and freedom so intensely felt in the 1980s, to Spain’s turn to the right in the early 2000s, to the economic collapse in the background of a film like I’m So Excited! Do you find in your choice of shooting Julieta now, a script that you had set aside for a few years, an urgency for thinking about our lives from a new kind of existential and maybe even, as I suggest here, political Ethos? For example, I am particularly curious about how, in this film, hope figures almost as an executioner. Instead, the film seems to suggest that Julieta’s deliverance is only possible at the moment she reaches a radical kind of acceptance.

Pedro Almodóvar: Populism, present-day populism, is a kind of bad, really bad, melodrama: a kind of facile melodrama both in style and form, a crude kind of melodrama. I always say that Julieta is a hard drama, a story of the tragic existence of an innocent character who lives a fatal destiny. The absence of humor and rhetoric makes her character weaker, more fragile, and more vulnerable than some of my previous characters. When you ask if the tragic tone of the film has something to do with what life has become in the present (not my life but life in the historical present) and then you also ask/share “do you think that tragedy can point us toward a new political ethic”? I think you offer interesting and even possible theses, but I find it difficult to sign on to them because, even if I might agree with them, I think I would risk sounding pretentious. These kinds of observations should be made from a point-of-view outside of my own (as you do here, for example).

What is true is that one becomes impregnated by the place in which one lives because that place, small as it may be, is connected to all places. As you say, Madrid is not only Ontario and Vancouver, but the whole universe. Moreover, depending on the moment, any film that I am making is impregnated by my own life, conscious and unconscious. The creative process, from the moment you write the first line of a script until the moment when you begin to engage in Q&A sessions, as we are doing now, is partly intuitive, not something that is totally rational. Answering questions is a practice of introspection, while most of the other processes of creating are action-driven. What matters most during the creative process is decision-making, which is action-oriented. For this reason, you have to know what you want, because once you are preparing, shooting, writing, post-producing, what you want takes a back-seat, instead, decision-making is what becomes essential. No decision is gratuitous. This is the case with picking the right wigs, the color of the walls, the furniture, the floor, planning the shoot, etc. I can only rely on my intuition and my instinct and my need to forge forward alongside the rest of the members of my team.

Coming up with an articulate answer as to why I made certain decisions is something I do by obligation, beginning at the point when the press begins to ask me questions. It is only during the interviews that I am compelled to analyze my own work. Though the first stage of this analysis takes place when I write the press-book, which I feel obliged to do, but I am later happy for having written. When addressing my films in retrospect, my fear is that I might fall into the trap of coming up with theses that were not present at the moment when I shot the film, kind of as a way of justifying the results. I don’t know if this makes sense. I don’t want to come off as more interesting than what I really am, nor to presume that I’ve endowed Julieta with intentions that I have only really discovered many months after wrapping it.

I do acknowledge the political vision of my films, but I waver when it comes to confirming your observations. I think this is for you to write without my intervention, or I can intervene by sharing my own experience, as I do now. When you say that, “hope figures almost as an executioner… Julieta’s deliverance is only possible at the moment she reaches a radical kind of acceptance.” It’s true. The way to survive and free oneself from any calamity is rooted in that. I would say that, if I allow myself the comparison, Julieta does represent Spanish citizens’ state of mind, pain, disenchantment, and confusion as well as the lack of a visibly clear path out of the situation in which we find ourselves. Julieta does walk adrift through the streets of Madrid, just like right now, Spain is also adrift without a government (or a functional government), after two elections that have only exacerbated and allowed for the current condition to continue. If I dare say it, Spain’s democratic system, based on political parties, is treading water. Right now, it seems there is no short-term solution, on the contrary, it does seem we sit at the antechamber of a true catastrophe. We run the risk that a populist leader could take advantage of this situation, let’s hope not.

The film was born in this atmosphere (alongside my back surgery, a year of pain and paralysis). And therefore, the film respires a tragic breath. True. In order to change this I will have to make another film. This is the only way to effect change as an individual.

CM: Could you speak to the first image of Julieta that I have chosen for this post? What does it represent to you?

PA: Julieta enters into the blackness of Richard Serra’s painting. We can only see the grand brushstrokes and Adriana Ugarte’s pale face in the foreground.Julieta sits on a cream-colored sofa. The top of the screen is taken over by the color black.

This image is a good example of what I mean when I refer to the narrative restraint I’ve employed. I am now realizing that, in order to clarify what I mean by this, I’ve used the examples of the film’s lack of humor and songs. But, narratively, I have arrived at the most important restriction and containment by employing as few narrative devices as possible such as to augment their dramatic impact. This scene is an example. We only have Richard Serra’s painting and Adriana’s face during what is one of the film’s most dramatic scenes: the moment when Julieta must tell her daughter, Antía, that her father has died.

Here, Julieta no longer has the strength to cry, she also doesn’t want to go into detail about how the tragic event occurred (its horrifying details), which she is also mortified by, since she blames herself for what’s happened. Despite this being such an important scene, I limited myself to two very simple elements: the black material of Serra’s painting and the Adriana’s pale skin. This scene also announces the central theme of the film: the split that occurs between mother and daughter and Julieta’s stunned solitude. Bea, Antía’s friend, approaches mother and daughter to see what is going on. When Antía sees her she breaks her mother’s embrace and she takes refuge in Bea’s arms and cries on her shoulder. Julieta looks on, helpless. She is now left radically alone on the couch just at that moment when mother and daughter should be able to share each others’ pain.

The transitional moment with the towel is another example where I employed this kind of restraint: to achieve maximum expressiveness with the fewest elements at my disposal (I was looking for them to be simple, accessible, quotidian). The same is true of the closing shot, with Lorenzo and Julieta in the car, as we hear Antía’s letter. If that medium close-up were to fail, the entire sequence would do so as well.

I have felt very gratified by working toward this kind of cinematic restraint because it has meant that I have rediscovered the immense value of the most basic cinematic tools: the tripod, the close-up, the fade-to-black, all the minimal elements. In this film, the times that I use a travelling shot almost feel like I have just invented movement, only because of the stillness that precedes it.

Can we transpose this narrative economy to the political terrain? Yes, if we take this to signal a return to the smallest and most basic things that we must then fervently defend: freedom, the common good, civil rights, and any other elements that one believes to be basic. And we adopt them and defend them no matter the consequences.

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