Alice Munro would not seem to be a perfect fit for Pedro Almodovar, whose new film Julieta is an adaptation of three short stories by Munro. Unlike the work of Sarah Polley, who adapted Munro’s story ‘The Bear Came Over The Mountain’ for her film Away From Her, Almodovar’s oeuvre shares few thematic or stylistic concerns with Munro’s. But Julieta feels in many ways faithful to the source material while staying true to Almodovar himself, and the key differences that exist between the two artists’ versions are revelatory about their approaches.
An early scene in Julieta, and in ‘Chance’, the first of the Alice Munro short stories from which it is drawn, sees the young protagonist taking a night train, which is forced to come to a halt after a man throws himself in front of it. The young woman, in the following minutes and hours, recovering from the shock of this death, meets the man who will become her partner and the father to her daughter. Thus far the two accounts of the event are broadly similar in film and book, but Almodovar makes key changes to this significant early moment.
Almodovar’s version is more overtly sexual: when Julieta meets Xoan, the attraction between them is instantaneous, and, in a superbly shot scene where the lovers are shown mirrored in a darkened window of the train, they make love in her carriage after he has escorted her back from the restaurant car. Munro’s version is both bolder and more low-key: her Juliet has to excuse herself after meeting Eric because she is on her period, and she rushes to the lavatory to take care of the emergency. But she is unable to flush her menstrual blood away, since the train is stationary while the suicide’s body is being cleared away outside the train, and she fears attracting attention. Munro juxtaposes death, fertility and social angst in one extraordinarily vivid image which is anchored in a socially conscious representation of 1960s Canada. Almodovar excises this altogether, to focus on the sexual rapport between his characters. For him, the scene is about sexual connection, and about the solace and liberation to be found in sex. The scene tells us, also, that Almodovar’s interest is in the plasticity of bodies, and in creating beauty from a moment of ugliness. Finally, his tone is in many ways gentler than that of Munro, whose even, measured prose can disguise a singular brutality.
Almodovar’s shrewdest touch in adapting Munro—and his most elegant act of fidelity—is to transpose her action from 1960s Canada to 1980s Spain, at the height of Movida when he first came to the fore as a director. Munro’s trilogy of interlinked stories (‘Chance’, ‘Soon’, ‘Silence’) stretches from 1965 to the early 2000s, and functions, in one possible reading of it, as an examination of the compromises and betrayals of baby boomer liberalism. Juliet, a young woman in 1965, meets Eric on a train, moves in with him in his house in remote Whale Bay just after his wife dies, and they have a daughter together, Penelope, who will later sever all links with her mother after discovering a new age type of spirituality.
Julieta meets Xoan in 1985 – a time when Spain opened up in the years following Franco’s deposition and a new liberal politics was possible, including for women. Adriana Ugarte, playing Julieta with short dyed hair, resembles nothing so much as Victoria Abril in Almodovar’s early films. This aligns the film’s events with Almodovar’s creative life, in the same way Munro’s trilogy centres on her years of creativity. As Julieta progresses through to the present day, the film works in a similar way to the short stories as an account of liberal Spain, and its difficulties in adapting to modernity. Where Munro delights in savaging Juliet’s narcissism and the idiotic spirituality her daughter seeks refuge in, Almodovar’s perspective appears more bittersweet, concentrating more on Julieta’s sadness and depression. In ‘Silence’, after Penelope has abandoned her mother, she sends her birthday cards on her own (Penelope's) birthday for several years, as a kind of odd, unspoken rebuke; in Julieta, the mother makes a birthday cake every year for her daughter who never comes home to share it with her. Again Munro’s imagery is more vivid, again more cruel; Almodovar looks for the heart in his characters, where she allows them to hurt each other.
Almodovar sadly discards almost all of Munro’s bite: where his film is relatively restrained, her short stories feature some laugh-out-loud jokes, which all feed in to the bitterness of her worldview. The first gag comes on the very first page of ‘Chance’: “Juanita said that she wished her lover’s wife was brain-dead”. In ‘Silence’, Juliet’s anger with the spiritual leader she sees as having taken her daughter away from her prompts her to nickname one guidance counsellor ‘Mother Shipton’: “That was what she had finally decided to call her, having toyed with and become dissatisfied with Pope Joan”. Munro’s most delicious joke is that Eric, who lives and works in Whale Bay, is a prawn fisher; she slips it in very gently, but in the drag world you would call that a read. Almodovar’s film is very beautiful, replacing Munro’s tartness with a kind of melancholy languor, but it loses out to Munro’s work on punchiness. Julieta, after his comedy I’m So Excited, is his second-least funny film.
Almodovar’s tools, his cinematic language, operate on a different level to Munro. Her composure as a narrator is total, presenting her characters and situations with deft, even-handed coolness over several pages, all the better to clobber you with a two-sentence narrative jolt or brutal observation. Almodovar’s natural register is melodrama, and although Julieta sees him dial down many of his tendencies towards those heightened emotions, his style is unmistakeable. Beautiful backwards tracking shots, mesmerising close-ups, a lush and insistent string score that ramps up the tension, and a colour palette of startling reds, puts Julieta in the lineage of other Almodovar films like Talk To Her. This is also what lends Julieta its warmth, its aesthetic generosity, and helps to temper the crushing sadness of its subject matter.
Almodovar’s fascination with beauty is what leads him to diverge from Munro’s stories in another crucial regard, namely their work on bodies. As shown in the menstruation scene, Munro’s emphasis is on the earthiness and almost grotesque quality of bodies. She contrasts the coarse physicality of human bodies with what she sees as the sophistry of faith. In ‘Soon’, Juliet can’t bring herself to tell her dying mother that she will see her in heaven, and there is a sensational moment when a diabetic priest has a panic attack during a sugar-low. In ‘Chance’, Munro delights in a gruesome account of Eric’s overtly non-religious funeral pyre on a beach. “One of the men cried, ‘Get the children out of here.” This was when the flames had reached the body, bringing the realization, coming rather late, that consumption of fat, of heart and kidneys and liver, might produce explosive or sizzling noises disconcerting to hear.”
If Julieta discards this theme, it’s because Almodovar is obsessed with the sensuality of bodies, with their cosmetic gorgeousness. Munro tells us, rather wearily, that Juliet is beautiful, but Almodovar goes to town on the idea. Julieta is gorgeous, and framed exquisitely in the film as played by Ugarte in later scenes and Emma Suarez as an older woman. Xoan, her mismatched partner, is also shot in all his gentle-yet-macho splendour, a little like Almodovar used to film Antonio Banderas, minus the outright horniness of his early work. Almodovar can’t bring himself to show the failure of bodies: for him, redemption for life’s miseries and deceptions is to be found precisely in physical attraction and connection, in the marvel of human beauty. What his film loses in psychological and social precision compared to Munro’s work (we know next to nothing about the fishing village Julieta and Xoan live in; we find out very little about Julieta’s parents) it gains in the wide-eyed wonder he has for the loveliness of youth and the power of sexuality. Munro’s stories show how Juliet’s intellectual life sustains her, to a point, through her ordeal; Almodovar gives us a brief but salutary glimpse of Julieta’s fulfilling sexual life as an older woman. Julieta gives us an idea of disconnection, but sex and beauty still seem to invigorate Almodovar’s work, leavening its sorrow and loneliness.
Julieta’s feat, ultimately, is that Almodovar himself is so present and alive in this story, which in so many ways is lightyears away from his perspective and experiences. In Julieta, the character, we see a reflection of the hopes, dreams, desires and sorrows of a man who is not afraid to bare his soul. His moulding of these stories into this highly personal film shows that, as in the work of Munro herself, surprises may lie ahead in his later work.