'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' and Knowing How Far to Go Too Far

Julieta Serrano as Lucía

Some films disavow their own filmic presence, they attempt to be subtle by staying out of the way; this is not one of those films.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Director: Pedro Almódovar
Cast: Carmen Maura, Julieta Serrano, Antonio Banderas
Distributor: Criterion Collection
US Release date: 2017-02-21

One of the leading lights of La Movida Madrileña, the countercultural revival in Spain following the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, Pedro Almódovar, perhaps more than any other filmmaker of that generation, tapped into the emergent sense of a burgeoning “liveness”, a renewed vitality, and a revitalized hope for an unconstrained expression of cultural and sexual liberation. Early feature films, such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), Labyrinth of Passion (1982), and Law of Desire (1987), puncture social mores and the boundaries of sexual decorum. There are golden showers, transsexuals, and a depiction of homosexuality not as transgression but rather as another possibility within the radical new openness pervading Spanish society.

At first glance, the film that brought him to international attention, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), strikes one as rather tame in comparison. It seems to be a fairly conventional farce detailing the misadventures of Pepa (Carmen Maura), a woman in her late 30s, who has just been abandoned by her lover Iván (Fernando Guillén). She desperately attempts to track him down to inform him that she is pregnant with his child. Meanwhile, her younger ditsy friend Candela (María Barranco) has discovered that she had unwittingly become the mistress of a Shiite terrorist and had harbored two of his accomplices in her home. She learned of their arrest on television and now fears that she will be arrested as complicit in their planned attack. Candela wants to hide out with Pepa.

Then Iván’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his girlfriend Marisa (Rossy de Palma) drop by in a strange coincidence, hoping to lease Pepa’s apartment. Somewhere along the way, Pepa manages to light her bed on fire, destroy her telephone (twice), throw various objects through the window, drug Marisa (inducing a deep sleep that leads to her first orgasm), drug two cops and a telephone repairman, torment and slap Iván’s new lover (without realizing she was Iván’s new lover), and save Iván’s life only to realize she wants nothing more to do with him. It's a whirlwind of silliness and easily charmed audiences worldwide, many of whom had no awareness of La Movida Madrileña.

There is, however, a subterranean sensibility that suffuses the entire film and gives it a vitality lacking from my all-too-brief summary of the plot. This film is not what you might call “transparent”. Some films disavow their own filmic presence, they attempt to be subtle by staying out of the way. These films draw you in through a kind of naturalness, so that it feels as though you are simply a spectator taking up a fairly unobtrusive stance, that you are being allowed a privileged view of the unfolding of the action. In short, such films minimize the apparatus of film so that you seem to get a direct purview on to the story. This is not one of those films. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is obtrusive in the most delightful manner.

First, there's the explosion of color. Everything is vibrant, vivid, and vivacious. The reds are luscious, the greens rich, and the blues profound. The palette threatens to cross over into the garish without ever succumbing to the temptation. This is a comic strip run amok. The color scheme alone does a good portion of the “work” of the film. It announces that this is our world and yet not. The world of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is hyperreal; everything exudes a joyous superfluity, an overfullness, ripeness on the cusp of spoiling. The film teeters on the edge (just like its beloved characters). To paraphrase Almódovar’s literary hero Jean Cocteau: its wisdom is in knowing how far to go too far.

Second, there's the use of the camera. Almódovar shoots extended passages that remove us from our sense of involvement in the plot in order to wonder at the filmic qualities of this movie. When Pepa paces the floor in anxious reverie, we are placed at the level of her feet. Her shoes move across our field of vision, the clicking of the heels pervades our hearing. Her feet, or more accurately her shoes, become partial objects, cut off from the world at large. They are the isolated markers of her distress and the camera, by calling attention to itself, demonstrates that our access to this world is restricted.

In another scene, we see Pepa checking her answering machine but we see her from within the machine itself. We occupy one of the objects that serve to confound our heroine, we become yet another obstacle in her search for resolution, another reminder that her lover ignores her. In these moments of directorial preciousness, we are cut off from the fullness of Pepa’s existence. We are only given one-dimensional glimpses of her mode of being.

But the misalignment, so to speak, between the horror movie-inspired camera angles and the preposterousness of Pepa’s situation ensconces us within the realm of comedy perhaps more than a traditional manner of filming could manage to do. The incongruous mixing of codes, the critical distance between what we see unfolding and our investment in it (hilariously lampooned by the camera -- for how can we take seriously quotidian anxiety decked out in such wildly Hitchcockian dress?) -- these are the hallmarks of comedy. The flatness of mise-en-scène returns us to the level of the comic strip.

Finally, there's another aspect of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that reminds us constantly that it is a film, another manner in which it gets in its own way in order to produce an indelible effect that allows this seemingly inconsequential comedy to rank alongside any of Almódovar’s other releases (and to my mind, this film surpasses most of Almódovar’s other efforts). This element is slightly more difficult to define, but it's therefore the most important of the three.

For as much trouble as we see poor Pepa experiencing, her world is an inviting and glamorous realm of inconsequentiality. Her Madrid apartment has a terrace replete with chickens and large, verdant plants straight out of a painting by Henri Rousseau. The view from her balcony resembles a movie backdrop to such an extent that one imagines she does not inhabit the real world at all (so that this film is merely an imaginative document of her existence) but rather she lives within a filmic universe; she inhabits the ludic center of the cinematic impulse, the “as-if” realm of the imagination run wild.

In Pepa’s world there's always a taxi with a lushly kitsch interior waiting with a driver sporting a ridiculous pompadour who stocks his cab with various sundries that his customers might enjoy while listening to an assortment of mambo tunes. And, of course, whenever you need a taxi that same driver awaits. City streets feature children skipping rope in a preposterously choreographed manner. Pepa’s world even aestheticizes the villains. Iván’s estranged wife hijacks a motorcycle and its owner in order to get to the airport to exact her revenge upon Iván. Shortly after she has fired shots at Pepa, who is in pursuit in that cab with the driver with the pompadour, we see her in profile, her hair streaming back in the wind. Despite the high-speed chase and her mission of violent vengeance, at that moment she seems serene. This ludicrous character, the closest thing we get to a true villain in this film, is made beautiful, but it's a beauty created out of incongruity, a sort of gorgeous placidity derived from displacing narrative with a tableau of the absurd.

But then the moment pulls back and the narrative continues. No moment overstays its welcome in this film. Even its excesses stay within acceptable limits. Women on the Verge truly understands how far to go too far.

Criterion Collections presents a Blu-ray edition of Pedro Almódovar’s delightful farce, featuring a beautiful restoration of the film prepared under the supervision of the director and his brother/executive producer Agustin Almódovar. The Blu-ray includes a few extras: separate recent (2016) interviews with Pedro Almódovar, Agustin Almódovar, and Carmen Maura; a filmed discussion of the impact of the film on Spanish culture by scholar Richard Peña, and an essay by critic Elvira Lindo. Peña’s and Lindo’s contributions are well worth careful consideration insofar as they illuminate the context Almódovar’s achievements as well as reflect upon what Almódovar came to represent within La Movida Madrileña.


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