in Criterion Month, Review

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

As a cinephile, or in layman’s terms, “A movie liking’ guy” Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is a blind spot. Yasujirō Ozu is another (better watch out pal I’m coming for ya!) I’m not sure why it took me so long. I got so close to watching that Penelope Cruz movie with the creepy mask. I wanted to see Pain and Glory, but it felt weird to watch a semi-autobiographical film by a filmmaker I have no history with. All I knew about Almodóvar is that he casts strong women and sometimes Antonio Banderas. So Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown felt like a good enough entry. It may have come out a decade into Almodóvar’s career but it was his international breakout, nabbing a Best Foreign Language Film nom at the Oscars. So what did I learn?

This film feels a lot like a play. Which is probably because it was inspired by a play by Jean Cocteau. You might know him as that guy that made the creepy Beauty and the Beast where the candleholders are human arms. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown also feels like a play because the film is mostly self-contained in an apartment with a small cast of characters. The film is dialogue driven but also quick and punchy.

Carmen Maura (in an electric performance) plays Pepa, an actress who does dubbing for foreign films who is on the verge of a you-know-what. Pepa has been left by her lover Ivan (Fernando Guillén) who has asked Pepa to pack his things so that he can pick them up later. As she waits for him, a series of zany drop-ins occur at her apartment. It’s gonna get zany guys!

Such zany drop-ins include; Carlos (Antonio Banderas), Ivan’s son who is apartment hunting, his snobby wife Marisa (Rossy de Palma) who accidentally drinks gazpacho laced with sleeping pills, Lucia (Julieta Serrano) a mentally unhinged former lover of Ivan, and Candela (Maria Barranco) who tries to kill herself after she has an affair with a man from a Shiite terrorist cell who plan to hijack a flight. Everybody is having one of those days! Am I right?

The film is carried by Almodóvar’s over-the-top characters with their soap opera appropriate issues. What I didn’t know about Almodóvarwas his flare for color. Every room, outfit, prop (no matter how minor) pops off the screen. There are bright blue telephone booths with red phones, pastel furniture and blindingly red clothes. I love the choice of using fake backdrops for rooftop scenes as well. I don’t know if it was a budgetary decision or an artistic decisions but it adds to the heightened pop art sensibility of the film.

The film is short, to the point, with great characters and great moments. One of my favorite scenes is when Pepa is so stressed she accidentally starts a fire and just stares at it. All the characters are great. It’s like a sitcom but edgier and with more colors. I’m not sure which Almodóvar movie I’ll watch next but at least now I know what he as an artist offers to the world of film, which is a lot.

Look at all that red!