Almódovar’s stars are more cheerful than his new movie

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens March 30
Broadway Theatre

His films have been hit-and-miss over the last decade but Julieta is top-tier Pedro Almodóvar. Julieta is reminiscent of the Spanish filmmaker’s best work (All About My Mother, Volver), and the heavy emotional content feels true to life — not always the case with the filmmaker from La Mancha.

Based on three short stories by Alice Munro, Julieta unfolds as a mystery within an enigma. We first meet the title character (Emma Suárez) as she bails on a move to Portugal with her boyfriend. Soon, we’re told the reason is her estranged daughter, Antía. Flashbacks reveal how young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) came to meet Antía’s father, a fisherman, and how her entire existence has been marred by guilt.

I don’t wish to spoil Julieta’s surprises. Suffice it to say the punches are consistent and land more often than not. A more sombre than usual Almodóvar depicts guilt as a destructive force that reproduces itself. Julieta’s dad offers a nice counterpoint to the lead character: move on or be consumed by remorse.

I had the chance last TIFF to talk to Julieta’s Adriana Ugarte and Rossy De Palma. The latter has been associated to the Spanish filmmaker since Law of Desire (1987). Ugarte is a first-timer, but she’s a perfect fit for the Almodóvar universe. Both actresses interrupt, talk over each other and eat large quantities of almonds.

Adriana, the transition from young Julieta to middle-age Julieta is very smooth, yet you and Emma don’t share obvious traits. How did you approach this?

ADRIANA UGARTE: Pedro knew imitating one another wasn’t necessary. People evolve: our gestures are different at 20, 40 and 80. Since our lifestyle, values and physique change so much, it wasn’t necessary to create a structural identity. Just find a common essence. Pedro takes us both to the same emotional place, even though Emma and I worked separately and have different acting styles.

It also plays with the notion that pain can change you physically.

ROSSY DE PALMA: Pedro was tempted to age young Julieta, but you can’t put make up on “the look”. Our life experiences are all there.

AU: That happens with many women. They may have wonderful skin and many operations to look young, but “the look” gives away your age. It doesn’t get darker, it becomes deeper.

Rossy, you have made seven films with Almodóvar. How has he changed as a director?

RDP: He hasn’t changed that much. When Pedro first got behind the camera, it was like he was born for this. Pure ecstasy. It may not seem that way, but he has been very demanding from the beginning. He gives actors the peace of mind of working for someone who knows what he is doing. Still leaves the door open to improvisation, to capture the accidental aspect of life.

AU: Rossy and Pedro are like siblings.

RDP: I don’t let myself go with anyone like I do with Pedro. Just check how I look in Julieta! (The fashion-conscious De Palma dons a frizzy wig and matronly dresses to portray Marian, a meddlesome maid.) I’m Virgo, very Cartesian-minded, but I’d rather work unconsciously and disappear, let the character take over. I need a strong director to do that.

The tone of the film is very sombre. Was it difficult to leave the character on set at the end of the day?

AU: It took me a couple of months. I’ve never experienced motherhood with a character, let alone having an 11-year-old daughter. It reminded me of myself as a teenager, selfish and unfair towards my mom. I felt I had no control over what I was doing. The movie took me to very passionate, very dark corners. By the end, I was feeling like a child after a birthday party: tired, but overexcited.

Do you have to relate to a character to play it?

RDP: Above all, you can’t judge it.

AU: You have to love the character’s story. I love Julieta because she is human, because she has made mistakes.

RDP: Marian reminded me of my great-aunts and their notion that women belong at home. They peddled machismo and were prophets of doom.

Language Arts

Somehow, our conversation evolves into a discussion about the romantic qualities of certain languages. “In Spanish, you have so many words to talk about love”, says Rossy.

“English is more like a work language”, adds Adriana.

Coming from her, you can’t help but agree.  ❧