Julieta and the women of Almodóvar, and why it’s time Hollywood caught up

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With Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta releasing in the UK this week, it comes as little surprise (helped along by the title giving it away somewhat) that the film centres around women. The Spanish auteur’s latest endeavour depicts the tragic life of a brokenhearted mother, who finally decides to confront her past, and the elusive, bleak situation concerning her estranged daughter.

The film is emblematic of a filmmaker who doesn’t just have women at the core of his narratives, but studiously lingers over themes to do with femininity, not afraid to explore sexuality and desire, while the maternal dynamic between a mother and daughter has enriched several of his endeavours, with All About My Mother a prime example. His first commercial hit, Matador, focused in on a female bullfighter turned on by the notion of killing. The farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown followed (again, the clue is in the title), while Volver and Broken Embraces led to two of regular collaborator Penelope Cruz’s finest ever performances.

In Almodóvar’s work women have the power, they are strong-willed, and idolised fervently by their male counterparts

He allows women a freedom, and the performances that transpire are evident of that. In Almodóvar’s work women have the power, they are strong-willed, and idolised fervently by their male counterparts (in rather disturbing fashion in the likes of Talk to Her and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!). Almodóvar is something of a rarity in that regard, though in European cinema, outside of the UK, he remains emblematic of a cinematic culture that simply has better, and more frequent roles for actresses.

Not just young women either, but some of the finest roles you see, particularly in French cinema, belong to the more experienced Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. Three quite remarkable performers, but given a platform to show off their talents, with nuanced, multi-layered roles. Whenever they do end up playing mere love interests, or somebody’s mother – it’s usually when they turn to Hollywood. In France it’s a different matter entirely, and Huppert’s incredible turn in Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come epitomises that, as a role you just wouldn’t find in America. Meanwhile certain actresses are leaving the UK to find better roles, turning to French cinema for a new means of honing their craft and challenging themselves – such as Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Arterton.

In Hollywood not only are there a lack of roles being written for older actresses, but is seems that those over a certain age are being turned away for roles that would legitimately make sense belonging to them. Maggie Gyllenhaal, at just 37 years of age, was told she was too old for a role as a partner to a 55-year-old man. She told The Wrap that “There are things that are really disappointing about being an actress in Hollywood that surprise me all the time,” she said. “I’m 37 and I was told recently I was too old to play the lover of a man who was 55. It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”

While understanding exactly what the actress was saying, really, it’s not that funny at all, and Almodóvar himself had strong words to say on the matter. “Hollywood is losing an enormous opportunity when it doesn’t actually create these good roles for women of all ages,” he told Variety. “There’s a kind of diabolical sexism, and I say that it’s diabolical because there’s no one that we can actually accuse of being responsible for this sexism. The roles are out there for someone like Meryl Streep, but they’re not out there for the others.”

Certain actresses are leaving the UK to find better roles, turning to French cinema for a new means of honing their craft and challenging themselves

But what can done to change this? There’s been a conscious effort of late to give more roles to women, but if you look at the eight Best Picture nominees at the most recent Academy Awards, only two had women in the lead role (Brooklyn, Room). Yet we have seen an improvement of sorts, epitomised in the recent all-female Ghostbusters reboot, and the forthcoming Ocean’s 11 remake that has recently been confirmed. Yet while appreciating the wheels are in motion, these roles were still originally written for men, and are now re-crafted and provided for women. They aren’t being written originally for actresses, and that’s what we need to see more of. The debate as to whether James Bond could be played by a woman shouldn’t exist – for there should be a great spy-led action franchise, with a strong female lead, already in existence, so we wouldn’t need a new Bond, we’d have one already.

But in the meantime, indulge in Almodóvar’s Julieta, and be sure to catch Things to Come when it arrives in cinemas in September. And while the former is so unashamed in how influenced he is by Hollywood, with several overt references to the likes of All About Eve, A Streetcar Named Desire and Frankenstein within his work, wouldn’t it be nice if the favour was returned and Hollywood was now influenced by him?

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About Stefan Pape

Stefan Pape is a film critic and interviewer who spends most of his time in dark rooms, sipping on filter coffee and becoming perilously embroiled in the lives of others. He adores the work of Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, and won’t have a bad word said against Paul Giamatti.

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