Pedro Almodóvar is the wild man of world cinema, a great, flamboyant talent whose films shimmer with his own vivid and hotly sexual take on the world. Not this time. Julieta, adapted from a trio of short stories by Pulitzer-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro, is more of the author than Almodóvar – the movie is a genuflection to the restraint and detail of her prose. This isn't a bad thing. It's just a different approach for the Spanish provocateur.
The plot unfolds, over three decades, in the form of a thriller. Almodóvar sets Munro's story of Vancouver mother Juliet Henderson in Madrid. She's now Julieta, a Hitchcock blonde played in youth by the vibrant Adriana Ugarte and in her older years by Emma Suárez. When we meet the mature version, a teacher of classical literature, she's preparing to leave Madrid for Portugal with her partner Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). Julieta's recent life has been dominated by a search for her daughter Antia (played in ascending age order by Ariadna Martín, Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Parés), who disappeared mysteriously 13 years ago, shortly after attending a religious retreat. Almost ready to move on, our heroine runs into her daughter's best friend, who speaks of having recently seen Antia. So all bets are off. Julieta sticks to home and the search is on.
Almodóvar uses flashbacks to reveal the dynamics of this mother-daughter relationship. Julieta's affair with a fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), results in marriage and the birth of their child. But when tragedy intrudes and questions arise about possible infidelity involving a sculptress (Inma Cuesta), the character finds her life in disarray. It's here, in a gorgeous scene in which Ugarte's Julieta emerges from a bathtub and "turns" into Suarez, that the film cuts to its core themes about love and betrayal. The filmmaker is surprisingly stingy at revealing the details of what went wrong between the family members, and audiences may find their patience tested. But Almodóvar's admiration for Munro is not misplaced. Despite rough patches, Julieta morphs into a haunting and hypnotic tribute to both their talents.