“I’ve had a hectic day.”
It is fitting that Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown features a few scenes from Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Like that iconoclastic 1954 Western, this 1988 Spanish film is similarly rich in color, high on fiery emotions, and saturated in the hues of melodramatic tension. Almodóvar’s main inspiration for the film, however, was Jean Cocteau’s 1930 French play “The Human Voice,” later made into a 1948 film by Roberto Rossellini, which revolves around a telephone break-up and the aftermath endured by its female lead. Though this parting conversation is the basic crux of the play, it is where Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown picks up and takes off.
The freshly separated couple in the film consists of television actors Pepa (Carmen Maura) and Iván (Fernando Guillén). She is seen early on waking up from a potentially fatal consumption of sleeping pills, taken in her distress, while his telling introduction comes by way of a black and white sequence in which he spouts clichéd declarations of love to a variety of different women, in some cases tailoring his remarks to their ethnicities. But as Iván generally recedes into the background of the story (part of the film’s humor is how Pepa can’t seem to ever track him down), Pepa emerges as the primary protagonist. In time, she is joined by Candela (María Barranco), a friend who inadvertently harbored some terrorists and now fears police persecution, Iván’s son Carlos (a bespectacled high-haired Antonio Banderas), and his snooty fiancée, Marisa (Rossy de Palma). Carlos’ mother, Lucía (Julieta Serrano), who despises Pepa because she believes Iván has been unfaithful to her alone, also plays an increasingly substantial role, as does lawyer Pauline (Kiti Mánver), who is currently involved with the womanizing Iván and is planning to depart with him to Stockholm (in the plane doomed to be hijacked by Candela’s acquaintances). Save for Carlos, it’s a full house of multi-leveled feminine disorder— hence the plural Women—and all are riotously united in roughly 24 hours of drama.
Still, gliding her way through the chaos as if such pandemonium were the norm, Pepa is the central focus. Confronted by one obstacle after another, some not entirely accidental (there are times she goes looking for trouble), she is a resilient woman and an immediately engaging heroine. Displaying remarkable range, Maura, a frequent Almodóvar collaborator, somehow embodies the film’s frenetic momentum and establishes a human foundation for the picture’s moments of almost surreal bedlam. The image of her thoughtfully staring at her bed, which she just set on fire, proceeding to then put it out with a garden hose, gives some idea of Almodóvar’s crazed visual and narrative conception and Maura’s ability to pull it off. Almodóvar has always been particularly adept at working with women, but his female characters would never be the impressive figures they are, were it not for the routinely fine performances of these actresses. This goes for Maura as much as anyone, and part of why she succeeds so well, as is perfectly demonstrated in this film, comes from her desire to make audiences feel good, to have a good time, to laugh. She states in an interview included on the new Criterion Collection disc of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that she considers humor to be a magic pill to lift the viewer’s spirits.
And this is one spirited film. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown builds and builds on lies and coincidences, chance oversights and chance connections, hilarious misunderstandings and Hitchcockian suspense. It is a high-strung comedy filled with guns, sensuality, hysterical passions, and barbiturate-laced gazpacho. There are even high speed pursuits (when told to “follow that cab,” a Mambo-loving taxi driver, who basically stocks a convenience store in his back seat, quite appropriately declares, “I thought this only happened in the movies”). “Watching Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, we don’t have a chance to think,” writes novelist and critic Elvira Lindo in an essay for Criterion. “We laugh, we smile, we look on in bewilderment as characters enter and leave the scene, but we don’t get a moment’s pause until the very end.” It’s to the credit of Almodóvar and editor José Salcedo that the whole thing continues as cohesive as it does. As its title implies, the film and its personalities are continually “on the verge,” but only Lucía, whose mental stability was already on the brink, teeters over the edge.
Lindo also comments on the influence of Almodóvar’s films on fashion, and aside from its closet full of vivid, sometimes quite revealing, clothing, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is an all-around fashionable film. Teased by its openings credits, crafted like a scrapbook catalog from something like a 1950’s edition of Ladies’ Home Journal, the film is layered with a borderline garish interior design, an abundance of cosmetics, elaborate hairstyles, and of course, that bold wardrobe. Almodóvar says comedy is destined to be removed from reality, insisting in his Criterion interview that artifice is inherent in the genre. This he certainly puts into practice throughout Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, from its studio backdrops to its inventively stylized camera angles (kudos to regular cinematographer José Luis Alcaine for accomplishing what could not have been easy camera movements and positions). Everything about Almodóvar’s formalized canvas pops, especially in this 2K restoration.
The Criterion disk also includes interviews with Almodóvar’s producer brother Agustín Almodóvar and scholar Richard Peña, but Lindo’s essay may be the most perceptive feature of this release. Her insight into the national and social context of Almodóvar’s work does a good deal to contextualize the importance of his films, in ways that would not be obvious from a superficial viewing. She writes about how post-Franco Madrid “opened to nightlife like a flower, and brazen self-assurance took over spaces once occupied by fear.” The result was a double-edged opportunity offered by a time in which she says “there was no such thing as political correctness or self-censorship—in those days, boldness and recklessness reigned. This scene was as dangerous as it was fun; the most prudent or the luckiest among us survived, but many innocent lives were lost along the way.”
Almodóvar’s cinema is born from the liberty of comedy and the possibility of a newly democratic optimism. “How wonderful it was to take in that spectacle and feel like a part of it,” Lindo writes, “to leave the theater with the sense that you could satisfy your desires and not have to feel guilty, strange, or inappropriate.” As depicted in this film, perhaps idealistically so, society was finally functioning in productive unison. It is only the people and their relationships that still get in the way of happiness. This freedom is profound either way, and that sense of joyous abandon is manifest in nearly every film Almodóvar has made. His characters are unwaveringly genuine and persistently, gloriously alive. One need look no further than Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where its assortment of individuals are each given occasion to materialize fully-formed and vital. Between its screwball tempo and its absorption and release of Spain’s cultural vibrancy, a film like this can’t help but be exuberant, and Almodóvar was widely recognized for his lively work. A 1989 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film firmly planted him on the world stage and contributed to what became, and remains, an essential reason for his popularity and critical success: as Lindo points out, “Almodóvar’s cinema is as local as it is universal.”