Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is probably Pedro Almodovar’s most accessible film and it is certainly one of his funniest and most popular works. It is wilder and more comedic in tone than the darkly affecting films that preceded it (Matador, Law of Desire, and What Have I Done to Deserve This?) in which the young director was proving his iconoclast’s mettle and trying for any and every sort of provocation so long as it might offend somebody’s sensibility. With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Almodovar decides to charm rather than shock, and this good-humored ecstatic fever dream of ‘80s post-modernism is the perfect film for anyone new to the filmmaker’s work. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, along with several European awards, won both the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
Though not in any serious or cerebral way the film is, like most Almodovar films, feminist in its essence. The storyline of Women on the Verge is based loosely on Jean Cocteau’s 1930 one-character play The Human Voice (which was filmed in 1948 with the great Anna Magnani). In Almodovar’s hands and set in Madrid, the tale unfurls eccentrically yet with a bizarre inevitability—it becomes an extreme soap opera on surrealistic steroids. Offering a thumbnail of the plot is a bit like trying to cross-diagram a year’s worth of Days of Our Lives episodes with the geographic chronology of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Suffice it to say, the title means what it says. Pepa Marcos (the arresting Carmen Maura), a voice-dubbing actress, is losing her mind because extramarital lover Ivan (Fernando Guillen) deserts her. Convinced that the Pepa affair is ongoing, Ivan’s wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano) goes on a rampage. Meanwhile excitable Candela (Maria Barranco) is in trouble with the police because she has unwittingly fallen for a Shiite terrorist, so she hides in Pepa’s apartment. There is more, much more—including botched suicide attempts, smashed windows, ripped stockings, beds set on fire, a Jehovah’s Witness landlady, and a gazpacho laced with barbiturates.
It is mad, Grand-Guignol, very satisfying comedy. Jose Luis Alcaine’s nimble cinematography, the scenic design by Emilio Canuelo and Felix Murcia, and Jose Maria de Cossio’s costume designs evince Almodovar’s characteristic energy and palette—vibrant, irrepressible, insistent.
As later became evident in his most disciplined and cinematically eloquent dramas—such as All About My Mother (1999) and the poetic, haunting Talk to Her (2002)—Almodovar invests his characters with a modicum of dignity. (His 2013 I’m So Excited is a rare exception and was a critical and box-office flop.) Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown reminds us that even when his raucous narratives careen through passages of absurdism, farce, and tragedy, they do so with the expertise of a director distinguished by his probing wit and tender sensibility. He never condescends. People and events may wax outrageously ridiculous but they are never less than human.
– Hadley Hury
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