A mother writes an unaddressed letter to her only daughter. A frank and direct letter, a dry regurgitation of memories and feelings of guilt, failure, abandonment and perhaps also compassionate lies.
Film is my whole life. Which in some way condemns me. If I am not involved in a film, my life feels sad
That letter is Julieta, the latest and 20th film by Pedro Almodóvar, who has spent months – in reality years – developing a character who is now being split between two actresses – Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez – who respectively play the young (the memory) and the old (the present) versions of the same voice.
Almodóvar has not yet revealed much about either the character or the story that carries her name, which is perhaps why he seems afraid of being unable to find the right words to discuss a film about women that bears little resemblance to his previous works about women. A drama that cuts no slack – either for its characters or for the viewer – it spans different times, places and events with a single hope: to find a destination for that disconsolate letter.
“This is a film about imperfect but defendable women, as they all are, as we all are,” he explains. Due to be released in Spain on April 8, Julieta features a cast of actors that the director has mostly never worked with before. The origin lies in three stories by Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro. “I have tried to be the least rhetorical possible. Restraint was the idea I carried around with me because I decided that this was the way to tell this story, which is not a melodrama but a terse drama.”
“I battled a lot with the actresses’ tears, against the physical need to cry,” he says. “It is a very expressive battle. It wasn’t out of reservedness, but because I didn’t want tears, what I wanted was dejection – the thing that stays inside after years and years of pain. I adore melodrama, it’s a noble genre, a truly great genre, but I was very clear that I didn’t want anything epic, I wanted something else. Put simply, this had to be a very dry, tearless film.”
Sitting in a leather armchair inside his office in Madrid’s Las Ventas neighborhood, the 66-year-old director is flanked by, among other things, an original poster for his 1987 movie Law of Desire and photographs of people he loves or admires – Penélope Cruz, Billy Wilder, John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, Pina Bausch, Lauren Bacall, Michelangelo Antonioni, Francis Ford Coppola, Jeanne Moreau…
Also on display are the innumerable prizes he has received throughout his long career: the only ones missing are the two Oscars he won in 1999 for All About My Mother and in 2002 for Talk to Her, which like his cat Lucio, are back at home. “He was given to me during the shooting of The Skin I Live In,” he says. “He was a stray cat who is now king of the house and doesn’t want anything to do with the street. It’s funny, but the love I have for him has given shape to my feelings of affection – it’s a complete reeducation that has helped me a lot.”
The seed for Julieta lies in Munro’s stories Chance, Soon and Silence, whose rights Almodóvar bought straight after reading them in 2009. In fact, the original title for the film was Silence, but as it coincided with Martin Scorsese’s next film, he decided to change it in November of last year to avoid any confusion.
“My initial idea was to do a film in English with English-speaking actresses,” he explains. “I wanted to film in Canada, in the places that Munro was talking about. My mind was made up. During the promotion of The Skin I Live In, we went to scout locations in Vancouver and that’s where the problems started. My heart sank. The real landscapes were completely desolate and sad and I clearly saw I wouldn’t be able to shoot there, not even for a few months. It was too depressing for me. Then we went to New York State in search of a geographical substitute. I finished the script and it was translated into English with American idiosyncrasies. That didn’t convince me, either. So I put it away in a drawer and forgot about it – until two years ago Lola [García, his personal assistant] and Bárbara [Peiró, head of his production company El Deseo’s international department] suggested that we revisit the project with one alteration: the story shouldn’t take place in the US but in Spain. I guess that was when I decided to forget Alice Munro.”
Barely anything remains of the original tales. “Except one thing that was fundamental to me, and which belonged to her: the train scene,” Almodóvar notes. “There is always something that moves you to make a film, which especially attracts you, and if anything drew me to this film it was the scenes that take place inside the train. All filmmakers adore trains, and I was consumed with the idea of filming in one. But reality was very different, and working inside a real train, small, with seats full of mites, was a real nightmare. We could barely move, we couldn’t stop coughing, our throats were itching... It was not so pleasant.”
Journeys make up a substantial part of the film, which features enormous ellipses between different time periods. The many locations needed for the movie took their toll on the director, who came to the shoot after a difficult back operation that put him out of action for many months.
“The logical thing would have been a studio shoot, but I do not control what I write. Even the parts in Madrid we shot in real houses. We spent time in Galicia, the Pyrenees, Andalusia. The truth is that I began filming Julieta without being sure if I would be able to finish it. Nothing was guaranteed. I hadn’t been up on my feet for 10 hours a day in a long time. As so often happens in life, I only had two options. And I didn’t hesitate. For me it was a choice between living or not living. It was that extreme. Because living for me means shooting films. The act of filming is so important that I thought about its healing power, and I wasn’t wrong.
This addiction is what makes him live every project to the limit. “I put my all into each film,” he says. “Movies are my whole life. Which in some way condemns me. If I am not involved in a film, my life feels sad. And that leaves me in a permanent state of anxiety. It makes me pay attention to everything I read, see and listen to because from there, that reality, could come the first line of my next story, which is my true reality. Perhaps it makes me sound bad, but I am a solitary person with very limited ambitions, wishes and desires. The truth is that cinema fulfills everything for me in life.”
The words sum up who Pedro Almodóvar is today. In his hands, cinema changes the rules of life, forcing viewers to abandon their commitment to the real in order to immerse themselves in a deeper truth. Perhaps the most moving thing about Julieta is how, in just a few strokes, it describes the mother-daughter relationship when the worst things, whether illness or madness, are already present. It barely takes a few seconds focused on one face – that of actress Susi Sánchez – or one gesture, that of a girl bathing her depressed mother in a grim exchange of roles.
Almodóvar’s understanding of women characters seems deeper than ever in this film. “They will ask me a thousand times about the female universe and I will say that it really isn’t anything exceptional. You are not as difficult to understand as you think, though you are sufficiently mysterious to turn yourselves into an excellent dramatic subject. We are surrounded by women – mothers, sisters and wives. Just by trying to listen a little to what is going on around you, anyone can have a female universe like mine. I am not so special.”
“The problem is, and above all I am talking about Hollywood, that the film industry doesn’t allow you to make films about women. I have control of my own films and that’s why I decide that my main character is going to be a woman over 50. The really terrible thing is that most screenwriters don’t realize that there are many women between the ages of 50 and 60 who have the most wonderful stories to tell.”
English version by Nick Funnell.