Pedro Almodovar's love letter to Alice Munro
The director's Julieta was supposed to be his English-language debut – a sweeping adaptation of the Canadian author's work starring Meryl Streep. But then, much like a Munro story, life got in the way
Meryl Streep did not get the starring role in Julieta, the new Pedro Almodovar film based on stories by Alice Munro. If it's any consolation, though, the multiple Oscar-winning star avoided being splattered with hot grease from a burning corpse.
The corpse came from Munro's story, Silence, the third of three linked stories in her 2004 collection, Runaway. A young fisherman has drowned and his friends decide to cremate him on the beach. Among the mourners are the dead man's common-law partner and another woman who is his former lover. Munro writes how the flames reach the body "bringing the realization, coming rather late, that the consumption of fat, of heart and kidneys and liver, might produce explosive or sizzling noises disconcerting to hear."
"From a cinema point of view, that's absolutely stunning," Almodovar says. "The part where the mothers take away the children? I was thinking that was the point when I should get the fat to actually splash the two widows. Because the idea for me was the innards was what were left of the man and it made them equal at that moment …"
The director pauses to savour the thought. He is sitting behind his desk in his Madrid office, wearing a canary-yellow sweater, with a puffy woollen scarf around his neck, his full face crowned by a shock of white hair. On one side of his desk is a shelf of oversized art and design books; on the wall above him are rows of photos of him with various film luminaries, including Sophia Loren, whose image hovers over his head as if it were a Madonna icon. Alas, the human barbecue had to be cancelled.
Julieta was supposed to be Almodovar's somewhat overdue English-language debut (he turned 67 in September).
The film was to be set in New England and New York, with Streep in the role of Juliet – proud, smart, a touch flinty – over the course of three decades. The final gut punch of a story sees her as a middle-aged mother enduring an inexplicable estrangement from her adult daughter.After Almodovar wrote his script, though, he was filled with doubts, about the dynamics of North American families, about the quality of his writing in English. He put the film on hold. It wasn't until an assistant suggested he reset the story in Spain that he felt free to go ahead.
Almodovar shifted the time forward from the 1960s of Munro's story to the 1980s, when sexual liberation finally came to Spain. This was the period of his artistic breakthrough. His first campy comedy, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del monton (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Average Girls) was released in 1980 and became emblematic of La Movida Madrilena, or "The Madrid movement" – an explosion of sexual liberation, fashion and artistic creativity in the wake of Franco's death in 1975. ("For my first three films," he tells me, "I acted as though Franco never existed. That was my revenge, by denying any shadow of his influence.")
In the Spanish script, Juliet became Julieta. The farming community of Southwestern Ontario became the golden fields of Andalusia, the urban modern jumble of Vancouver transformed to the stately Spanish capital of Madrid and the British Columbia coast became the stormy shores of Galicia in northwestern Spain, an area where shipwrecks were so prevalent it's known as the Coast of Death.
In Spain, Almodovar explains, there are legal protocols for deaths at sea, which don't include cremations. Streep was given an apologetic phone call.
"I absolutely love the stories of Alice Munro," Almodovar says, "but I took them and I walked with them on my own track. I didn't forget them. They were crucial to the tone of the film."
His guiding words were "realism" and "restraint," which, contrary to the impression left by Almodovar's early cinema, aren't foreign to Spanish life. Madrid, for all its inflamed history, is a chill, down-to-earth city. A few weeks after I saw Julieta in the theatres, I realized the woman next to me in the market, competing for the fish cutter's attention, was actress Emma Suarez, the woman who scooped Streep's starring role.
"Nobody's a really big star here," Almodovar says. "Everybody has access to the streets. It's healthy."
Almodovar goes to the local cinema to catch new movies. He can shoot in familiar neighbourhoods without much public interference. He commutes from his apartment in west Madrid to the east-side offices of his production company, El Deseo (Desire), in the Guindalera, best known as the home to a famous bullring in the ornate Neo-Moorish style, inaugurated in the summer of 1931, weeks before Munro was born.
El Deseo's offices are on a side street, which, apart from a pink elementary school, consists of mostly blank-faced, low-rise office and residential buildings. From the unmarked entrance, you are buzzed through the green glass doors to Almodovar-land: Posters from his 20 feature films decorate walls painted in saturated, blues, reds and yellows, colours that mimic the Technicolor hues of the 1950s that first excited him as a child.
This may seem far from the flat fields and concession roads of Munro's Huron County, although the two artists have much in common. Both were born in small farming communities, from labourer fathers and educated mothers (Almodovar's mother wrote letters for illiterate neighbours) and have talked about the formative influence of the stories of country women.
While Almodovar's elaborate narratives are overtly wacky and Munro's submerged in a thin crust of normality, both revel in story: time-jumping narratives, shocks and the tension of unanswered questions.
Silence, the title of Munro's final story in the Juliet cycle, was originally intended to be the title of Almodovar's film, but Martin Scorsese got to the title first with his new historical drama.
"If you think about family relationships," Almodovar says, "they are filled with silences. It's not just a problem in Canada or the U.S. I was born to a family in La Mancha and there were lots of big issues that were never, never talked about."
For years, Almodovar has made no secret of his admiration for Munro, long before she was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature. The cover of her book Runaway made a cameo appearance in his 2011 thriller, The Skin I Live In, and in 2008, in a story he wrote for El Pais, he said she was one of his favourite authors.
Perhaps less known to North American audiences, it's that the esteem is shared by many of Spain's cultural elite. Although Munro's works were not translated into Spanish until the 1990s, her reputation has risen in parallel with a revival of the short story in the country.
Prof. Pilar Somacarrera of the Autonomous University of Madrid writes in Made in Canada, Read in Spain, that Munro's literary reputation achieved "canonical" literary status in Spain around 2010. In 2012, when the newspaper ABC's cultural section surveyed Spanish authors to name the "foundational" books of the this century, three of Munro's titles were included.
Munro and Almodovar are even blue-blood siblings. For several years, Spain's foremost novelist, Javier Marias, the self-appointed "King" of the literary realm of Redonda (based on a real uninhabited island in the Caribbean), handed out honourary titles to artists he admired. Almodovar, for example, is the "Duke of Tremula" (meaning "quivering" after his 1997 film, Carne Tremula, or Live Flesh).
During the early 2000s (the practice appears to have petered out after 2009), the dukes and duchesses also voted a foreign artist to honour, both with a cash prize and a title. In 2005, Munro was dubbed the "Duchess of Ontario."
I'm curious if Almodovar has ever actually met or contacted his royal cousin. No, he says, and after he talks for a moment about his good relations with her literary representatives, he suddenly remembers something important and jumps up and leaves the room. He returns a moment later and hands me a copy of a new Vintage Books movie-tie-in book of Munro's three stories, for which he wrote the introduction.
"This is what I am most proud of," he says. "It makes me think they were happy with what I've done."
He mentions he has also written Munro a long letter, which he still hasn't sent.
"It's about my process and how much I admire her, and an apology for the changes I made. But I'm afraid to send it." Apparently, Almodovar thinks Munro may be a literary recluse who has turned her back on society, "which I completely respect," and doesn't want to be bothered by long letters from strangers.
I tell him I think he has this wrong. She didn't attend the Nobel ceremony because of her health. From what I've heard and read, she's a friendly person, even community-minded. I mention I saw her years ago at the Blyth Festival Theatre, near her home, working as a volunteer, ushering people to their seat.
"Really?" Almodovar says. "I didn't know that. I will send the letter."
"I'm sure she'd love that," I say, as I leave El Deseo, and head back on the street, feeling a little foolish as I have no idea how Munro feels about long letters from strangers, but this couldn't be left hanging.
Obviously, the Duke of Tremula needs to write to the Duchess of Ontario and explain his true feelings. The story demands it.
Julieta opens Dec. 23 in Toronto, Jan. 6 in Vancouver, and throughout January in other cities.