#855 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
1988 // Spain // Pedro Almodóvar
Criterion Collection (LINK)
I seldom approach a film via its title since most of the time it’s a commercial decision rather than artistic choice, while the remaining film titles are simply forgettable. Still there are moments that, though rarely, the film title not only arouse my innate curiosity, it is also a product of ingenuity. Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 international breakout hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is definitely the exemplary of film title being as equally great as the film itself. It’s catchy without being pretentious, it sets up the tone of the film in a condensed single-line summary of the entire plot. So accordingly the film is about women, about their plight in maintaining sanity and their urge to break through the psychological burden.
Women depicted in Almodóvar’s films are unique in their sensibility, they are flamboyant, fierce, ludicrous yet valuable. Sometimes the portrait is derailed and over-the-top like in Kikia (1993) which I seriously dislike. But the majority is lovable, like Pepa (Carmen Maura) in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. TV actress Papa is depressed while her lover an co-star Iván (Fernando Guillén) left her. Her reaction? She sets her bed on fire, mixes sleeping pills in the Gazpacho. She is, as the film title asserts, on the verge of nervous breakdown, but she always turns back before crossing the insanity line. Unsurprisingly, Pepa is not the only women having issues evoked by being in love and the subsequent lost of love, her best friend Candela (María Barranco) is hiding from the police since she sheltered her boyfriend who happens to be a Shiite terrorist; Iván’s wife Lucía (Julieta Serrano) has been admitted to the mental hospital since Iván left her, she is now released and expects revenge; Paulina (Kiti Manver), a feminist lawyer and Iván’s secret lover, is going away with Iván but not before Pepa visits her for legal help.
The female characters are edgy, always on the run for a purpose or fleeing away from distress. Except virgin Marisa (Rossy de Palma), the fiancée of Iván’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas), who falls into sleep for half of the screening time while enjoying a sexual dream as she accidentally drinks the drugged Gazpacho in Pepa’a apartment. In contrary, the male characters are more or less impotent. Iván, being irresponsible and cowardly evading Pepa, is largely absent from the film. Though his voice plays a dominate role at the beginning in dubbing the Spanish version of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar or sweet talking with Pepa. His stuttering son Carlos might be a bit more resourceful, yet he serves more like a balancing leeway than an individual character. But after all, the ensemble cast, male or female, gives away a charming and in-sync performance that makes the absurdity works on screen (the opposite example would be I’m So excited which everything falls apart into a farce). Even the minor characters like the talkative receptionist or the queer taxi driver gets their chance in delivering memorable lines and wonderful gags.
All is said, Pedro Almodóvar is the true mastermind behind the camera with the film robustly colored and shot by José Luis Alcaine vibrantly. The dark comedy tone echos the 30s Hollywood screwball comedy by George Cukor or Frank Capra, the colorful palette melodrama recalls those from Douglas Sirk, and there are glimpses of Hitchcock and Ray. It’s a box of cinematic treasure. Even if you are not a cinephile, the meticulously calibrated farcical comedy is a great fun for weekend nights. The film might not be as kitsch and provocative as Almodóvar’s earliest film or as “serious” and insightful as his later works after 90s which I’m slightly more in favor of, still Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is an ardent and impeachable summation of Almodóvar’s style, and don’t forget it has the greatest film title too.