Both a film noir and a candy-colored confection, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is one of the most absorbing films he’s made in years. It’s also, perhaps, one of the saddest: Its bright hues and vivid textures offset a deep, unshakable melancholy. Based on a trio of Alice Munro short stories, Julieta follows the title character (played in middle age by Emma Suárez) as she discovers that her long-lost daughter Antía, now an adult, may have resurfaced. Delving back into her own painful past in order to understand how things went wrong between her and her child, Julieta relates to us how, as a young woman (now played by Adriana Ugarte), she met Antía’s fisherman father Xoan (Daniel Grao) and wound up in an odd marriage born of grief, betrayal, passion and resentment.
As so often happens with Almodóvar, the story edges toward both the bizarre and the inevitable — destiny pulls these people along, but it also throws them some strange curveballs — so perhaps it’s best not to give too much away here. What’s important is that Julieta finds herself constantly, over the course of her life, assuming guilt and responsibility for the others around her: for her two-timing husband, for her retired father, even for a stranger she meets one night on a train and who winds up having a seismic effect on her life. Later, when she's a parent, her tendency to blame herself for everything manifests itself in other ways.
Here and elsewhere, Almodóvar’s playful style often hides his more Olympian perspective. In Julieta, characters’ experiences are doubled and mirrored, and the director’s elaborate and pointed patterns — of both the visual and narrative kind — give off the sense that everything’s supposed to fit together as part of some grand plan. When we first see the middle-aged Julieta, she's dressed head to toe in bright red; when we first see her younger self, she's decked out all in bright blue.
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And so, the film is a steady cataloging of how blue became red, of how one woman transformed into the other and absorbed the hurt of the world — how she became a walking wound. (The striking switch from the younger to the older actress actually comes right in the middle of a scene, and it's beautifully, heartbreakingly well done.) But while Almodóvar may move his characters around like a god (or at least a moralist), his attention to detail and his fondness for unexpected bits of tenderness give these people shape and dimension, and keep the narrative from becoming schematic.
Julieta has an open relationship with genre. Alberto Iglesias’ sublime score surges with noirish menace while the story itself — filled with sudden disappearances, betrayal, clues from the past — keeps threatening to turn into a crime thriller. (Almodóvar probably understands better than any other contemporary filmmaker the intersection of classic film noir and the so-called women's picture.) That it never goes full genre is perhaps irrelevant. The brooding suspense reflects the protagonist's sense of inchoate guilt: She always suspects that she's done something wrong, but she's never quite sure what.
Guilt infects the women around Julieta as well. The men in this tale often leave emotional devastation in their wake, and it’s up to the women to assume responsibility; they judge themselves for the corrosive, sometimes fatal decisions their husbands, fathers and boyfriends wind up making. But as in many Almodóvar films, characters are capable of unity and common ground. His women find strength in one another, and the film resists easy resolutions. Julieta may move like an answer, but it’s not afraid to end as a question.