Men directing women: Almódovar ‘Julieta’

Benjamin Davies discusses guilt, colours and female relationships in Pedro Almódovar’s latest work

A sitting, male figure with a severed penis being wrapped in plastic—is this the opening of a horror flick? No: happily, the figure is a clay statue being swaddled in bubble wrap, and the film is Julieta (2016), the latest by auteur Pedro Almodóvar.

Almodóvar’s work is famous for, among other things, its focus on women. Indeed, Julieta is that rarest of films: it actually fails the Reverse Bechdel Test. There is absolutely no scene in which two men talk to each other.

Instead, the story is a rich web of relationships among women—between mothers and their daughters, and other mother’s daughters—which also handles relationships between women and men with naturalistic ease. In a culture which still tolerates—unbelievably, even venerates—the James Bond franchise, we need a lot more films like Julieta.

The story: Julieta, emotionally scarred by the deaths of a stranger and her husband, grows estranged from her daughter, who eventually leaves for a spiritual retreat, never to return. The film jumps around chronologically, following Julieta on her quest to find the child who turned their back on her.

Almodóvar makes stunning use of strong primary colours—particularly red, which permeates his filmography. There are several references to the Odyssey (Julieta is a Classics supply teacher) that could have been clumsy, but which are introduced and subtly reinforced with a masterful touch. This is all set to a strong score by Alberto Iglesias.

An episode of ‘Woman’s Hour’ broadcast last August took an excellent look at Julieta, with the eternally intelligent Jane Garvey interviewing actor Rossy De Palma, who plays a sultry maid in the film, and critics Karen Krisanovitch and Maria Delgado. Garvey pointed out that: ‘[some] women—feminists for sure—are doubtful about him [Almodóvar], and the way he treats women.’ His female characters, she complains, are often victims. De Palma instantly asserts that they are ‘survivors’, and Delgado opines that Almodóvar must first put female characters in jeopardy in order to create these survivors. What all present agreed on was that guilt is a major theme for the film.

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In Julieta, even though it feels at every moment like Almodóvar is just behind the camera—undoubtedly motioning to the props department for some more red things—we are arguably missing anything like the male gaze à la Laura Mulvey, or its thematic iterations.

Take those feelings of guilt, for example. They arise, admittedly, from things about men—the suicide of the man sitting opposite Julieta on a train, then the drowning of her husband after he storms out to go fishing following an argument. But, in a way that I think confirms De Palma and Delgado’s comments, these feelings detach themselves from their male origins, and are transformed by genuine and complex female relationships, such as that between Julieta and her friend Ava, or her daughter and her school-friends, which carry a kind of a priori significance that lesser directors may find it hard to convey.

Ultimately, not everybody will enjoy watching Julieta. It’s surprising, given the depths of emotions, and lustre of colours, that this film purports to be dealing with, just how cold and detached things sometimes feel.

Still the most accurate description I’ve seen was from a friend who told me she’d heard it was “a bit dirgey”. Garvey bathetically said she found it “mildly enjoyable”, and Delgado acknowledges that at no point does the film invite laughter. I’m inclined to agree also with Peter Debruge of Variety magazine, who made the astute observation that the non-linear narrative, which delays the “reveal” of Julieta’s source of pain until almost an hour into the film, makes it hard to buy into the story.

I think, however, we can—and should— still watch and admire Julieta, since it does several good things beyond nice cinematography. It explores several types of female relationship with an attentiveness rare to mainstream screen. It may serve as a gentler introduction to Almodóvar than his earlier films. It also, if perhaps not necessary at this stage in his career, reinforces Almodóvar’s status as an inspirational example of men participating productively in ostensibly feminist art.

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The emasculated clay statue makes an important appearance at the very end of the film, but you must look hard to spot it. Towards the end of the film, Julieta’s new partner Lorenzo goes to her apartment to fetch some things for her. He walks in, and we see the statue in the background of the shot, sat on a mantelpiece. Going to sit at Julieta’s desk in the centre of the shot, Lorenzo obscures the statue entirely. He examines a photograph of Julieta and Antia, which Julieta has glued back together after ripping it up. He then looks at a framed picture of himself and Julieta, smiling on holiday in Paris. Finally, he notices Julieta’s diary but, seeing that it contains writings to her daughter, shuts it immediately.

And so the statue, which began the film as a shocking image, hinting at crass violence, is first crowded out by women, and then eventually superseded by the living, breathing Lorenzo.

Julieta confronts us with the reality that the strongest, most compelling pains are not always—as in the case of the statue—physical, crude and gendered, but often of depth much more tremendous.