Almodóvar’s 1988 comedy classic receives the Criterion treatment.
I’m uncertain how typical it is for someone’s initial viewing of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to be in high school Spanish class, but that’s how I first saw it (I was later required to revisit the video for a college Spanish course, as well). The daffy comedy plays like something utterly contemporary while recalling the screwball films of old Hollywood.
Pepa (Carmen Maura) is slowly coming to terms with the end of her affair with Iván (Fernando Guillén), an older man who dodges her calls for a final conversation. Most of their chats during the film consist of Pepa talking to recorded messages from Ivan… either through her answering machine or through headphones during her dubbing job. She has important news to deliver, but forces (and his cowardice) keep them from meeting up.
Said forces include Pepa’s actress friend Candela (Maria Barranco), worried that she slept with and possibly harbored terrorists, Lucia (Julieta Serrano), Ivan’s ex who is determined to track him down, and Ivan’s son Carlos (a baby-faced, bespectacled Antonio Banderas) and his harsh fiancee Marisa (Rossy De Palma) who arrive as possible renters for Pepa’s penthouse. There’s a lot of action and fast-moving dialogue occurring in a span of a few days. Almodóvar’s screenplay for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is in near constant motion; gazpacho is spiked and consumed, phone lines are ripped out and repaired, and shoes and answering machines fall from the sky.
While the situations often inspire laughter, the director makes use of genre-bending cinematography. Pepa faints during a recording session and the camera shoots through her glasses, fallen to the floor. She paces her apartment and the focus remains on her black shoes. In the interview on the Criterion release, Almodóvar speaks of his decision to use these angles — more typical of thrillers — in his comedy. Such shots amplify Pepa’s desperation.
Almodóvar’s works tend to be heavy on stylization, and his 1988 film is no exception. Shades of red, a color regularly in this director’s palette, appear in the wardrobe and props, especially when Pepa is involved in a scene. Lucia’s character remains stuck in the ’60s, and her outfits and wigs display that. Even the instant affection and rapport between Pepa and Carlos seems fanciful, something that could only happen in a movie.
But if you’re a fan of Almodóvar, you’re not expecting realism (although sometimes elements of it sneak in anyway). You know that women will be at the center of his film and that it will look unlike any other director’s style. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was my introduction to the Spanish director, and is now one of my absolute favorite films. Hopefully this Criterion edition allows more film fans to become familiar with the classic.
Among the goodies included in the Criterion Blu-Ray: a digitally-restored print with a new English subtitle translation, interviews with director Pedro Almodóvar, producer Agustin Almodóvar, actress Carmen Maura (the interview’s subtitles leave out her cursing for some reason), and film scholar Richard Peña.