Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown (1988) A
“Women on the Verge,” Almodovar’s first acknowledged masterpiece, is an incisively sexy romp revolving around the more serious theme of obsessive love. Abounding with gaiety, melodrama, and violence, all merged together effectively, the film became Almodovar’s most commercially successful work to date.
“Women on the Verge” was named best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) in 1988, and Almodovar was named best young director at the EFA (European Film Awards). The film also won best screenplay at Venice Film Festival, where it received its world premiere.
Based on a series of missed connections and funny coincidences, the narrative is triggered by a single event. Ivan (Fernando Guillen), a desirable married man abruptly abandons his longtime lover, Pepa (Carmen Maura), unaware she is pregnant with his child. Throughout the story, the desperate Pepa is frantically trying to track down her elusive lover, first via hysterical telephone messages, then via more personal and dangerous pursuits.
In the course of her search, which unfolds as a road and chase movie, Pepa meets the various women in Ivan’s life, including his crazy wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), by whom he has fathered a now-grown-up handsome but shy and insecure son (Antonio Banderas). Distraught and depressed to the point of contemplating suicide, Pepa prepares a batch of gazpacho laced with barbiturates, meant for Ivan. Assuming a life of its own, the gazpacho then becomes the key to some strange and unexpected events, culminating in a loopy car chase.
Looking for a change, Pepa puts her apartment up for rent, and soon all kinds of bizarre people start showing up. When she is around (or her friends, when she is not), Pepa functions as host, at one point even entertaining two local policemen.
With “Women on the Verge,” Almodovar consolidated his reputation as a cult moviemaker, demonstrating ease at inventing stunning visual jokes and masterfully staging well-timed gags.
Furthermore, Almodovar has coaxed superb performances out of his uniformly skillful cast. This begins with Carmen Maura. An Almodovar regular and consummate farceuse, who brings out the pathos, the tragic, but also the joyous elements of the melodrama with remarkable energy and authenticity.
Flushed with bright lights and cartoon hues, the color palette nicely accents the fast-paced events, from the opening credits to the closing frames. In the first scene, Pepa’s penthouse and its large terrace are introduced as dawn fights its way through the heavy pollution. Though an urban dweller, Pepa has fulfilled her desire to live in the country, so to speak. She has palm trees with birds, a little yard with hens, a cock that crows, and a rabbit. Everything in this urban farm is put together with cheerfully perverse, slightly kitschy, taste.
Almodovar’s description of the set illustrates his theory of happiness, sort of his utopian manifesto: “Society has now adapted itself to individuals, and all their social and professional needs have been met.” For him, the most significant human goal is to be happy—or unhappy–with the person you love, with love serving as the highest goal possible.
Like the dichotomies in the narrative, the space is defined by binary oppositions: Country and city, upper and lower class, men and women, wives and mistresses, older and younger femmes. The movie belongs to a genre described by Almodovar as “Alta Comedia,” or “high comedy,” defined as a “comedy of manners, characterized by anti-naturalism: The sets are deliberately artificial, the performances and dialogues excessively rapid, and the deepest human ambitions treated in an abstract, almost synthetic manner.” “I am sick of being good,” Pepa says as she puts sleeping pills into her gazpacho as a trap for Ivan. (Gena Davis’ repressed and abused housewife would use a similar phrase, Ï am tired of being sedate,” several years later in “Thelma and Louise,” directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Kourie).
Lighting a cigarette, Pepa sets her bed aflame by accident. Staring into the flames, she seems strangely excited, even thrilled by the sight, dreaming of a bigger apocalypse. However, snapping out of her fantasy, Pepa throws her cigarette into the fire and then immediately goes for the hose. Eccentric and crazy as Pepa is, she is not stupid.
Almodovar’s women can be dreamy and losers, but only for a while. Eventually, they all get up on their solid feet and their sexy high heels (the title of one of Almodovar’s own pictures). The femmes may be flighty, spontaneous, tempestuous, and driven to momentary madness, but ultimately, they are pragmatic and sane, motivated by common sense rather than rational intellect, encouraged and fueled by a newly-formed sense of female community.
In the first reel, the film has an unsettled rhythm, defined by sudden shifts in the plot’s large locales and personas; there are at least ten characters, largely female. Almoodvar has acknowledged that, for his tale’s absurdities, he adopted the frantic pace of zany Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.
As the protagonist, Pepa is joined by and contrasted with half a dozen women. First, there is her weepy friend Candela (Maria Barranco), who wears earrings in the shape of espresso machines. In her big scene, reduced to tears, Candela tells of her affair with a Shiite terrorist who used her apartment as a meeting place. She now fears that the police will arrest her as an accessory, perhaps even conspirator.
Then there is Marisa, played by Rosy de Plama, known for her cubist structure of a face and extraordinary long and crooked nose, which give her a distinctive look. Dressed in sensual red, Marisa turns up at Pepa’s apartment with her boyfriend Carlos (Antonio Banderas), who just happens to be Ivan’s son. When Marisa (among others) drinks the gazpacho intended for Ivan, she falls asleep and goes through an erotic dream, in which she experiences her first orgasm ever. This is Almodovar’s satiric stab at men who brag about their sexual prowess—here, it takes a surreal reverie for a virginal girl to have her first sexual climax.
Sex in Almodovar’s movies is dreamy and realistic, exciting and messy, fulfilling and dangerous, an all-encompassing activity that relies on complete abandonment, total immersion to the exclusion of other interests and desires. It’s an all-encompassing, often humiliating obsession, risky to the point of death.
Though he offers the connection among all the characters, Ivan is only shown in brief glimpses, walking down the street, making a call out of a phone booth, or recording in a studio. Almodovar often reduces Ivan’s presence to a voice talking to a microphone in a close-up. Ivan and Pepa are dubbing the roles of Sterling Hayden and Joan Crawford, respectively, in Nicholas Ray’s 1954 cult Western “Johnny Guitar,” which Almodovar, like many other cinephiles, greatly admires.
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