TajLV’s review published on Letterboxd:
I try to pay attention to nominations for the Palm d'Or at Cannes. Such films cannot have won other major prizes before their appearance at the French capital of cinema chic, so this can be an excellent indicator of the best foreign films, in particular. "Julieta" earned director Pedro Almodóvar his fifth Palm d'Or mention and tenth Cannes nomination in total. It also won him several post-Cannes festival awards and a BAFTA nomination for Best Film not in the English Language, so I was certainly eager to see it.
The film is based upon three interlinked short stories from Canadian Alice Munro's prize-winning 2004 anthology "Runaway." In the adaptation, the name of the book's main character, Juliet Henderson, has been changed to Julieta Acros (Emma Suárez) and she is based in Madrid, not southwest Ontario. What's more Almodóvar has admitted that he "had not been completely faithful to the source material," but he did try to retain the primary relationships that form the core of Munro's stories.
The story opens with Juileta packing her things to move to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo Gentile (Darío Grandinetti). However, a chance meeting on the street with Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), the childhood friend of her estranged daughter Antía (Blanca Parés), scuttles that plan as she learns that Antia may be living in Switzerland with three children. She realizes that moving from Madrid would sever the only possible contact Juliete might have with her daughter.
In the seclusion of her own apartment, Julieta undertakes the writing of a journal "explaining everything" she was unable to tell her young daughter, starting with an explanation of how, when she was a young substitute teacher of classical literature, she met a married man from a seaside village called Xoan Feijoo (Daniel Grao), a fisherman by trade. She also tells of meeting his friend, a sculptress named Ava (Inma Cuesta), and confiding in her that she was pregnant, just after Xoan's wife passes away of a long illness.
Moving in with Xoan, birth, a visit to her parents when Antia turns two years old, her mother Sara (Susi Sánchez) very ill, her father Samuel (Joaquín Notario) cheating with the young maid Sanáa (Mariam Bachir), and Xoan gets an "A-J" tattoo to express his love for his spouse and daughter. Antia gets shipped off to summer camp when she's old enough. That's when Xoan's old housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma) tries to warn Julieta to stay at home and not go back to teaching. She implies Xoan has been sleeping with Ava.
When Julieta confronts him with the accusation, he doesn't deny it. But that day he goes fishing and dies when his boat capsizes in a violent storm. After identifying the body, Julieta goes home and gets a call from Antia, who wants to go to Madrid with her new friend Beatriz. Rather than tell the girl right away about her father's death, she waits and goes to Madrid. While Bea's mother Claudia (Pilar Castro) and her husband go off on a trip to Patagonia, Julieta stays at her place in Madrid looking after the two girls.
Seeing how close the girls have become, Julieta decides to take an apartment nearby and move to Madrid. But Julieta becomes terribly depressed. The girls need to look after her more than she needs to look after them. While mom works at home as a proofreader, Antia begins to draw away from her She goes on a spiritual retreat for three months and disappears. The retreat's organizer tells Julieta that her daughter "has chosen her own path, and you're not part of it."
**** CAUTION - POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ****
Life goes on, of course. Samuel has a son with Sanáa; Antia's birthdays come and go without contact; Julieta becomes more and more distraught. She moves to another apartment in town. Ava has MS and is hospitalized, but she tells Julieta how Antia blamed her mother for Xoan's death, saying "we all get what we deserve." Ironically, Julieta also blamed herself, and she feels that her guilt is what's infected her daughter.
At Ava's funeral, Julieta meets the sculptor's friend Lorenzo. But for whatever reason, she resolved never to tell him about Antia, perhaps to help her forget her pain. Then, she explains in her writing how she is like a drug addict, who only needs one lapse of will to fall back into old habits, like her obsessing about Antia, triggered by seeing Beatriz.
And then she meets Beatriz again, learning how Antia was more than her friend. She became possessive, forcing Bea to flee from her. And when Antia became "spiritual," she sounded like a cult member, decrying their past relationship. Soon after, distracted Julieta is hit by a car while crossing the street. Lorenzo comes to visit her in hospital. He picks up her mail and brings her a letter from Antia with a return address in Switzerland.
It's a rather melancholy story, well acted but lacking a strong message. In the end, I was confused. Was I supposed to sympathize with Julieta? Or her daughter? Or Lorenzo? Was I supposed to see this as a tale of what happens when communication breaks down? Or is it just a slice of life, some characters caught in their own nets, and me, as witness, responsible for sorting it out? I'm thinking the latter, which is why this loses half a star.