Cannes Dispatch #3: Julieta and Aquarius
What a day in Cannes. Another pair of acclaimed Competition entries—both nuanced portraits of aging women—hit at the midpoint of the 69th edition of the festival. Day seven began with the first showing of Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, and then in the afternoon, a screening of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius was marked by a political demonstration and then a lengthy standing ovation for its stunning lead performance.
A profound and moving study of family, guilt, and growing old, Pedro Almodóvar’s 20th feature—and one of his best recent films—is a spectacular new Competition entry (and opens in French theaters today). While he’s never taken the top prize in Cannes—he’s won Best Director for All About My Mother and Best Screenplay for Volver—Almodóvar is a rock star on the Riviera at a festival that has warmly embraced him film after film. His early screening today filled quickly, as did a morning press conference that greeted him and his cast with an enthusiastic round of applause. At an evening gala premiere later in the day he received a standing ovation before he and his cast and crew headed to a hot-ticket after-party on the beach.
The delicate story of a family in which grief destroys a bond between a mother and her daughter—the loss of a husband and father drives the two apart—Almodóvar’s latest is a dark turn following the light, airborne frivolity of his previous film, I’m So Excited. An avid reader who is known to consume two books per week, the sixty-something Spanish director was struck by the short stories in the Canadian author Alice Munro’s 2004 work, Runaway.
The title character of Julieta, portrayed by two actresses—Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte—is a broken woman who, in Almodóvar’s words, is sapped of her power by the end of the film. He said that after losing the people closest to her, “she’s almost like a zombie who walks through the streets without hope.”
The movie captures Julieta’s struggle to navigate abandonment and tragedy. “I had to find the loneliness, I had to go deeply into the loneliness,” Almodóvar admitted during today’s press conference. He said that in order to do so he immersed himself in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Bergman films, explored the German painter Lucian Freud and Spanish artist Antonio López García, and even studied French actress Jeanne Moreau’s walk.
A dark, brooding, percussive soundtrack by frequent Almodóvar collaborator Alberto Iglesias punctuates Julieta. The filmmaker also relied on a song performed by acclaimed ranchera singer Chavela Vargas, another regular heard often in his work, to cap the picture. The tune, “Si no te vas” (“If You Don’t Leave”) by Cuco Sánchez, reveals the emotional underpinnings of the story.
“If you leave, my world is going to end, a world where only you exist. Don’t leave, I don’t want you to leave, because if you leave that’s the very moment I’ll die.” These lyrics could have just as easily been used as dialogue in his new film, Almodóvar said today.
Almodóvar initially intended to adapt the stories “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence”—the independent pieces share a common character named Juliet—from Munro’s collection. “She was a housewife and that’s what I am too,” the Spanish auteur quipped today. “[Like her] I am at home thinking and writing.” The film was to be his English-language debut, perhaps shot in New York, but after writing the script, he said that he got cold feet and shelved it. Returning to it years later, Almodóvar decided to adapt the stories to his home country. A lover of trains, both toys and those that appear in movies, Almodóvar said he built the movie around the locomotive scenes that he lifted from Munro’s story.
Now, Almodóvar says that Julieta is more of a tribute to Munro than an adaptation of her work. “There’s a great deal of mystery in the stories of Alice Munro,” he said. And he was up for the journey to find his story. “Where will these characters lead me?” Almodóvar asked himself. He said today in Cannes that he “more or less forgot Alice” and that he’s “come back to a place. To a place that would never leave me. A place of women.”
Photo by Eugene Hernandez
Set in two time periods, the 1980s and the present, Julieta is also about the passage of time and the toll that life can take on a person. “It’s not that I feel like an old man, but I’m getting there,” Almodóvar reflected today. After quoting Philip Roth (“Age is not an illness but it’s a massacre”), he said, “That’s how I experience the passage of time right now.”
Without elaborating, Almodóvar said that he has been forced to make decisions for his health that he considers sad and boring, “I’m not a nostalgic person, but I miss my youth and I miss the ’80s. I think that feeling can be seen in the films I am making in this decade.”
His own struggles with aging can be found in his films, Almodóvar explained, noting that his connection to the older version of the title character is particularly striking. But don’t even think about trying to capture his life directly on the screen or the page, he warned and pleaded this morning in Cannes. “I do not want biographies, authorized or unauthorized, about me,” he said today. “Please don’t let anyone do a biopic about me. Please promise me that right now and also pass on the message to future generations. My life is in these 20 films.”
Incredible moments bookended this afternoon’s Cannes Competition screening of Aquarius, a striking portrait of a woman, featuring an astounding turn by actress Sonia Braga.
Kleber Mendonça Filho, the Brazilian director appearing in Competition for the first time this year with just his second fiction feature, won’t meet the press here until tomorrow, but he made a strong statement today as he arrived for this film’s gala screening at the Lumière Theatre.
The director led a demonstration against the recent impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff while standing alongside cast and crew at the top of the iconic red staircase leading into the theater. He and his colleagues held signs decrying the recent actions back home. “A coup took place in Brazil” and “The world cannot accept this illegitimate government,” read the simple black-on-white signs.
Inside the theater, the audience erupted in support of the protest and when Mendonça Filho entered the theater, they again exploded, cheering on the filmmaker and his cast and crew. A large banner was unfurled just a few rows in front of the screen as the crowd grew louder. “Stop coup in Brasil,” the green-on-white cloth sign read as more people held up signs. Festival director Thierry Frémaux introduced the name of the director over a microphone and the audience cheered in unison.
A film about mass consumption, community, gentrification, and aging set in Recife where Mendonça Filho lives, Aquarius is the story of a sixty-something woman and a fading building. It begins with Brazilian music and beautiful black-and-white images of people and buildings, communities thriving in the past. Set mostly in the dilapidated edifice for which the movie is named, the film follows Clara (Braga, in a revealing and powerful tour-de-force performance), an older woman who resides there. We observe her daily life, and meet her family and come to know them.
An ovation began anew the moment the film ended two hours and 20 minutes later. The crowd cheered through the credits and then stood and applauded for another 10 minutes, directing much of their adoration toward Braga.
This high-profile display ignited social media and photos were swiftly shared via social networks and resonated back in Brazil (and around the world). Rousseff herself weighed in on today’s proceedings, sharing video of the Cannes red carpet demonstration on Facebook. “I appreciate the support on the red carpet of the Festival de Cannes,” she wrote. “The cast of Aquarius, the director Kleber Mendonça Filho came out in defense of democracy and reminded the world of the coup d’état that [occurred] in the Brazil. I’ll send everyone a tender kiss in the name of democracy.”
The success here in Cannes is bittersweet for many connected to Brazilian film at home and abroad, with the country moving to curtail support for the arts. “It took nearly 20 years for the Brazilian film industry to recover from the collapse of cultural funding in the ’90s. In just a few days, the new interim government has already done away with the Ministry of Culture and they’ve hinted at radical cuts to incentives for the arts,” said Michael Gibbons, who worked in the country’s film industry before joining the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s senior staff. “These changes were not approved by voters and there’s a very real worry that unless they are stopped now, Brazilian cinema will return to the dark ages. This may be Brazil’s last opportunity in a long time to break through at Cannes, which only makes Aquarius and the discussion it has provoked all the more relevant.”