The great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has adapted part of Runaway, the 2004 book by the great Canadian author Alice Munro, as Julieta. The results are really intriguing, providing a movie experience that is full of mystery and both very faithful to the author and tonally often completely at odds with her approach. But then, Hitchcock is as big an influence as Munro, one might argue …
The following review is offered, a tad cheekily as the film hasn’t even been released in cinemas in much of the world yet, as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his unmissable Sweet Freedom blog.
“Good book you got there? What’s it about?” – from ‘Chance’
The book is made up of eight long stories, three of which (‘Chance,’ ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’) are interlinked to created a short novel traversing the entire adult life of Juliet, who we first meet fresh out of college, working as a substitute Classics teacher in Vancouver in 1965. After a six month stint her contract ends, and on impulse she decides to visit Eric, a fisherman she had a brief flirtation with some months earlier on a train, a dramatic journey in which another passenger, one she had perhaps rather cruelly snubbed, killed themselves. She knew that Eric had an invalid wife and arrives to discover, from the housekeeper Ailo, that the woman has just died. Juliet decides to stay, to Eric’s apparent delight.
“That’s just the way they get. When they’re sick like that, they can’t help it. They can’t think about anybody bu themselves.” – from ‘Soon’
We then catch up with Juliet in 1969 in ‘Soon’ when she takes her 18-month daughter Penelope to visits her folks Sam and Sara back home, north of Toronto. Juliet discovers that much has changed, that her mother is very ill, and that she has in some ways been supplanted in her parents’ household by another young woman roughly her own age, something which she finds disturbing without quite being able to understand what it is that upsets her so. The story reaches a dramatic climax when she engages in a long and drawn out argument with a pastor, with his own health issues, who has to come to visit her mother and bemoans Juliet’s lack of faith.
“I shouldn’t burden you with this.”
Penelope said, “Yeah, well, maybe not.” But added staunchly, “I forgive you. I guess I’m not a baby.” – from ‘Silence’
It emerges that her father, who now works growing and selling vegetables, decided to leave his job as a popular schoolteacher when it became known in the small town that Juliet and Eric had Penelope out of wedlock. The bulk of the concluding story – ‘Silence’ – picks up events some twenty years later. Sara has died, Sam has remarried, and Juliet is a widow and is close friends with Christa, an old girlfriend of her husband’s. Juliet remains ever-present in the story but it is Penelope who is now centre-stage even though she is almost entirely absent, having decided to abandon her mother for her own life. Is this because she blames her mother for Eric strange death or becomes she is looking for some sort of religious consolation that she can’t find at home? Munro declines any easy answers and is relentlessly hard on her characters, but always truthful, often painfully so. The stories are seemingly cool and detached but also remarkably lucid and evocative, conveying in just 110 pages material that might otherwise fill a much longer work. I was saddened and yet enormously impressed by this book, and would recommend it without reservation to those prepared to take a satisfying if emotionally uphill journey. In adapting it for the cinema, writer and director Pedro Almodóvar has started with the last story and then worked his way back …
The film begins in contemporary Madrid with Julieta (Emma Suárez) in middle age, getting ready to move to Portugal with her Italian partner (Darío Grandinetti). The trip is derailed when she meets an old friend of her daughter’s, leading to a full-blown crisis with her partner as she has never told him about her estranged daughter. We then flash back to the 1980s in which we see the younger version of herself, now played by Adriana Ugarte, having her dramatic episode on the train, though her meeting with the married man now leads to a night of passionate sex (in Munro there is merely some passionate necking, Juliet remaining chaste). The story then progresses more or less as in the original book, though with many important tonal shifts. Almodóvar compared with Munro adopts a much more melodramatic and highly coloured style, one certainly reminiscent of Hitchcock (Rebecca is a major influence, with Vertigo also getting a few nods) with bold colour choices throughout (Julieta is always linked to passionate red). Alberto Iglesias deserves special mention for a throbbing score that mixes cool, Miles Davis style jazz, Debussy and the classic sound of 1940s Hollywood. There are several standout moments, like the slow motion shot of a deer in the snow, though perhaps none quite as breathtaking as the scene in which Penelope helps her grieving mother out of the bath and towels her hair dry – I shan’t spoil it, you’ll know what I mean when you see it.
Compared with the original text, the film provides much more in the way of explanation and closure, removes or simplifies several subplots and goes out of its way to make the narrative mesh. It also bolsters the role of the housekeeper to provide a very nice role – somewhat reminiscent of Mrs Danvers from Rebecca – for the always amazing Rossy de Palma, a frequent actor in the director’s films. The result is thoroughly satisfying in its own way, the depiction of different types of relationships between women, daughters and mothers being especially affecting. But with its tightly controlled look and emphasis on plot resolution, it does however also feel ultimately more conventional, more like a movie, and a bit less realistic and naturalistic than its much grimmer source. But I’m not sure I mind that really – but if you can, I would suggest seeing the film first and reading the book after.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Producer: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Art Direction: Antxón Gómez
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Adriana Ugarte (Julieta in flashback), Emma Suárez (Julieta), Daniel Grao, Rossy de Palma, Emma Suárez, Inma Cuesta, Darío Grandinetti, Joaquín Notario