Today: July 16, 2024

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

While Law of Desire may have been the film that brought Pedro Almodóvar to a global audience, it was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that cemented his reputation as one of the great European filmmakers. Unlike Law of Desire, which achieves technical sophistication at the price of character depth and narrative complexity, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown manages to combine the technical brilliance of the director Almodóvar was becoming with the emotional seriousness of the director he had once been. Re-mastered and re-released as part of the excellent Almodóvar Collection, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is not just a great Almodóvar film or a great Spanish film, it is a great film full stop.

The film opens with a beautiful sequence in which Ivan (Fernando Guillén) is providing the voice-over for a Spanish translation of Nicholas Ray’s classic Western Johnny Guitar while his lover Pepa (Carmen Maura) sleeps through a dozen alarm clocks. The scene involves the end of a relationship and so the words of the character mirror Ivan’s desire to end his relationship with Pepa. Brilliantly, Pepa’s failure to get up in time means that she is not present to provide her side of the dialogue and so Ivan and Pepa effectively break up with each other without ever using their own words or speaking directly to each other. Horrified to have slept through her alarm, Pepa runs into work and performs her side of the dialogue with tears running down her cheeks. Realising that Ivan has effectively dumped her via voice-over, she angrily tries to track him down only to become distracted by Ivan’s other lives.

The first thing to understand about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is that it is not just a comedy but a traditional farce involving people making passes at each other, people getting mysteriously drugged, and people entering into a wealth of more-or-less plausible romantic misunderstandings. Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura plays Pepa as a woman of incredible strength and intelligence who is just about managing to keep herself sane as her emotional universe begins to implode. Indeed, much of the film’s comedy comes from the way that Pepa deals with her problems by allowing her internal chaos to spill out and begin infecting the real world. Thus, the couple’s stylish penthouse apartment devolves into little more than a tumbledown farmyard as windows break, beds burn, and animals escape from their pens.

Chief victims of Pepa’s strategy of outsourcing emotional turmoil is her best friend Candela (Maria Barranco), a beautifully air-headed model who made the mistake of sleeping with a man who turned out to be a Shiite terrorist and now finds herself terrified that the police are going to arrive and cart her off to prison. Unable to catch her best-friend’s attention, Candela eventually tries to throw herself from the balcony of Pepa’s beautiful apartment in what turns out to be a recurring theme of suicidal gestures that are broken down and repurposed as fuel for ridiculous sight gags.

It is really to Maura’s credit that, despite being placed in a series of horrible situations, she always manages to retain her dignity and remain one step ahead of the consequences for her actions. The fact that we are supposed to admire Pepa’s emotional tap-dancing is really brought home in the moment where she allows herself to be seen slipping into an elegant and sexy ensemble while the women around her struggle to find their shoes or to remain conscious.

Aside from being incredibly funny and full of lovely little moments, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is also a supremely well-made film in which the camera is always swooping across sets, peering through broken glasses and generally borrowing every teddy bear and train set in Alfred Hitchcock’s toy box. It is here that we really see Almodóvar’s progression as an auteur as while his previous film Law of Desire showed a similar level of technical sophistication it seemed to have been achieved at the price of the emotional sophistication and moral seriousness that characterised his earlier films. In this respect, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a true return to form as the film develops all of its supporting characters and revels in their intersecting lines of passion, desire and madness.

One of the more interesting things about the film is the way that it handles its male characters. We first meet Ivan in what feels a lot like a Federico Fellini pastiche in which an elegantly-dressed older man wanders along a line of fawning women doling out compliments based on their national dress. From a feminist point of view, the scene is awful but the target here is not the women who are reduced to little more than national stereotypes but the man who is unable to see or understand the women he claims to love. As in the scene in which Pepa is dumped by her lover’s voice-over, Ivan spends the entire film as an almost disembodied presence: Forever lying, forever running away, and forever leaving unhelpful phone messages. Ivan’s emotional immaturity is reflected in the unchecked and unthinking desire of his son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) who gropes one woman while his fiancé is passed out in front of him and then enjoys a weirdly oedipal relationship with his father’s lover who moves between adolescent flirtation and maternal supportiveness with no clear transitions in between. As was already obvious in Law of Desire, Almodóvar’s women are complex and paradoxical creatures while his men are nothing but objects of desire that illicit feelings more complex than they could ever hope to experience for themselves.

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