Pedro Almodóvars Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is pure farce, which is among my favorite kinds of comedy. It is approximately on the level of a good episode of I Love Lucy except that the themes are just a bit racier and up-to-date. This film is basically good, clean fun and hysteria at its zaniest.
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Historical Background: Pedro Almodóvar truly broke out into the stratosphere of filmmaking with his Academy Award winning All About My Mother (1999) and his even profounder Talk to Her (2002), but he has been making interesting, if not great, films for many years. Most critics and film aficionados consider Almodóvar the premiere Spanish director currently working and second only to Buñuel in the pantheon of all-time great Spanish filmmakers. His early works, such as Labyrinth of Passion (1982), Dark Habits (1983), Matador (1985), and Law of Desire (1987) (which also starred Carmen Maura) were too kinky and edgy to appeal to a mainstream audience. In fact, Almodóvars earliest film experience was in pornographic fare. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was Almodóvars breakthrough film, in terms of commercial appeal at least. He followed it with another very entertaining film in 1990, Tie Me Up! Time Me Down!.
The Story: A soap opera and voice-dubbing actress named Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) is distraught over being summarily dumped by her lover Ivan (Fernando Guillén). The cad even had the nerve to breakup with her via her answering machine and to ask her to pack his things and leave them outside where he could pick them up. She is in a frenzy, wanting to locate Ivan to patch things up or at least put some closure on the relationship. At her wits end, Pepa whips up a batch of gazpacho (a spicy tomato juice concoction) laced with barbiturates that she means to use either on herself or to keep Ivan from splitting. Meanwhile, Ivans ex-wife, Lucia (Julieta Serrano) has just gotten out of a mental institution after a twenty year stint and has revenge on her mind. She believes that Ivan and Pepa are still an item. Pepas best friend, Candela (Maria Barranco), fell for a Muslim a few weeks ago but has discovered that he is a Shiite terrorist. He and some of his friends had moved into her apartment until their recent arrest, which is being broadcast all over the news. Candela needs a place to stay in case the terrorists reveal who has been putting them up. But thats not all! Pepa is persona non grata with Ivans mother and so must resort to staking out their apartment in the hopes that Ivan will show up there. She inadvertently discovers that Ivan has a twenty-year-old son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), a kind of shy, lawyerly type, that he has kept secret from Pepa during all the years they had lived together. Carlos, it seems, was brought up by his grandparents.
Pepa decides she will sublet her penthouse and move into an apartment. First, however, in an act of desperation, Pepa sets her bed on fire, but later recants and puts the fire out, leaving a black crater in the center of the mattress. She also rips the phone connection out of the wall and hurls it through a window. Candela arrives in a tizzy sure that the police are after her but cant get a word in edgewise amidst Pepas own distress. By chance, Carlos and his snooty tight-booty girlfriend, Marisa (Rossy de Palma), are the first potential clients who come by to check out the penthouse for a possible sublet. Pepa recognizes Carlos and Carlos recognizes the picture of his father. Marisa is non-plussed. Candela attempts to jump off the balcony and very nearly succeeds, but clings by her nails to the outer ledge until Carlos and Pepa drag her back on board. Meanwhile, Marisa gets into the gazpacho and is out cold. This gives Carlos an opportunity to fix the phone, leave an anonymous tip with the police about the plans of the terrorists, and to make several bumbling passes at Candela, who is a good deal friendlier than Marisa, but currently not in the mood. Men keep taking advantage of me, she says. Look how the Arab world treated me.
Carlos urges Pepa to see a lawyer he knows, Paulina (Kitty Manver) a feminist who will surely take Candelas case. After all, she was seduced and terrorized by these Shiites which should obviate any charge against her as an accomplice. While in the waiting room, Pepa picks up the phone and recognizes Ivans voice. Paulina is too busy to take any interest in Candelas situation she is packing for a long trip (hint, hint).
Back at the flat, Pepa consults with Carlos just as the ex-wife, Lucia, and the cops simultaneously arrive Lucia looking for Ivan and/or Pepa (who she still believes to be the home-wrecker) and the cops looking for whoever called in the anonymous tip about a terrorist plot. Pepa confuses them with blather (Pepa sure knows how to talk) and has Carlos and Candela get out the gazpacho. Soon the flat is littered with unconscious cops, friends, and the telephone repair man. Lucia, however, isnt drinking and helps herself to the policemens twin pistols. After disabling Pepa with the old tomato juice in the eyes trick, she kidnaps a motorcyclist and hauls off to kill Ivan at the airport.
All of this nonstop farcical activity is interlaced with humorous asides. There is an extraordinary early surreal montage showing Ivan encountering one coquettish woman after another and always coming up with the right pickup line for each. Pepa and Ivan are both actors and in one scene their lines parallel whats happening in their relationship. During one of Pepas stake-outs, she watches a gal doing aerobic exercises in bra and panties in a large picture window. Pepa watches a television ad for detergent that features herself as the mother of a serial killer, washing her sons clothing with the product being advertised so effectively that the police are unable to find any blood or guts. As Pepa darts around the city racing hither and yon, she repeatedly encounters the same bleached-blond taxi driver (Guillermo Monesinos), who has decked out his taxi as a kind of leopard-skin lined mambo pad and pharmacy with an assortment of magazines, cosmetics, drugs, and so forth. When Pepa asks him to follow another cab, he opines, I thought this only happened in the movies. Through most of the comings and goings, Pepa prances around in spiked heels.
Themes: This is not a deep movie and it is a bit of a stretch to talk about its theme. Almodóvar does, however, have something of a consistent message across his set of film works. First, he is interested in gender roles and, especially, gender ambiguities. It that regard, it is interesting the all of the women in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, notwithstanding the title, are strong, independent sorts of women. This is a film of which Gloria Steinem might approve. The two male characters, Ivan and Carlos, by contrast, are both milquetoast types, though Carlos is very sweet milquetoast with plenty of subliminal sex appeal. Almodóvar is a bit of a paradox. He is openly homosexual but clearly loves strong women in some broader sense than sexually. Pepa may be worked up emotionally, but she keeps her wits about her and acts with real dignity in the end. And what other male director/script writer would dare to have one of his female characters opine, Its easier to learn mechanics than male psychology. You can know a motorcycle from top to bottom, but a man never. Almodóvar, himself, appears more attuned to the feminine psychology than to that of men or at least heterosexual men.
Production Values: The plot holds together very nicely and the pace is very well controlled other than a bit of slowness in the opening. Almodóvars cinematography is characterized here (as in many of his films) by an emphasis on strikingly bright scarlets and a generally gaudy color palette. There are some very clever shot angles as well, such as when Pepa faints and we see her distorted through the lens of her own glasses that have fallen beside her.
Carmen Maura is certainly the glue that holds this film together, since shes the only character with any emotional depth and the one with whom the audience empathizes. The others are mainly one dimensional cartoon strip characters. Maura is not really drop-dead gorgeous, at least to my eye, but shes got appealing looks augmented by inner strength, experience, sensitivity, depth of emotions, and character. Shes the kind of woman that men should be looking for but dont often have the wisdom to choose. Her face is gaunt and highlighted by dark brown eyes.
Antonio Banderas gives an appealing understated performance as Carlos, showing that he has a performance range outside of his more typically macho roles. All of the secondary roles were well-performed. I particularly liked Maria Barranco as Candela and Julieta Serrano as the maniacal, gun-toting Lucia.
Bottom-Line: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown received the best picture award in Spain in 1988 and a nomination for the Best Foreign Film category at the American Academy Awards. Almodóvar had to wait until 1999 to walk out of the Academy Award ceremonies with a trophy (for All About My Mother). The DVD by MGM includes no extras other than the trailer. Surely an interview with Banderas, Maura, or Almodóvar, whether in English or Spanish with subtitles, could have been included. I believe that this film is unrated, but I suspect it would be PG-13 if it were. It is in Spanish with English subtitles (or English dubbing which I cant recommend) and has a running time of 98 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Spain:
All About My Mother
Labyrinth of Passion
Sex and Lucía
Spirit of the Beehive
Talk to Her
Tie Me Up! Time Me Down!
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