As was touched on in class, Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) is nigh on total farce. From the colorful set design which has become an Almodovar staple, to recurrent characters (like the cab driver) popping repeatedly into the narrative from seemingly out of nowhere, to near-misses, coincidences and witty wordplay – put in simple terms, a generally goofy atmosphere – this is a stylistically-heightened comedy of manners, in a sense, or lack thereof.
The film opens (after a seemingly 1960s-inspired title sequence) with black-and-white footage of Ivan (Fernando Guillen), an aging womanizer, almost appearing to dance through a long succession of women of all shapes, sizes and types, pining away for them in increasingly absurd fashion. Like a Fellini hero Marcello Mastroianni could have played, Ivan is no great romantic – rather he loves women and wants to consume as many of them as he can, as often as he can, until he can’t no more.
Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) is a TV actress whose “lover” Ivan has very recently left her. Depressed, consuming sleeping pills to deal with the emotional heartache, Pepa is overcome with conflicting emotions – she hates him, she loves him, she can’t stand to see him, she’s desperate to talk to him, she wants answers, no answer will be good enough. Such is love, such is life. As if Pepa’s difficulties weren’t already near to frothing over, her overwrought friend Candela (Maria Barranco), an albatross around Pepa’s neck, keeps calling and leaving frantic messages relating to her horror at discovering the Shiite terrorist she’s shacked up with may be planning to destroy a flight to Stockholm…which prompt Pepa to toss her own phone out the window! Dios mio! (Whether this comes before or after she sets her own bed on fire and dumps sleeping pills in the gazpacho she’s made I do not recall, but does it matter?) But before she can avoid Candela any further, Pepa is overrun first with Candela’s arrival at the apartment and then – through coincidence (!) – Ivan’s son Carlos’s (Antonio Banderas) arrival: he’s apartment-hunting with his snobby fiancée Marisa (Rossy de Palma), responding to Pepa’s advertisement.
As if all of this wasn’t enough for one or two or three different movies, we are treated to Julieta Serrano as Ivan’s ex Lucia, who has come fresh out of the mental ward and either wants Ivan back, wants to kill whomever he’s now sleeping with, or him, or both – who knows? Did anyone else notice that the “awful” pink ensemble she puts on in the film’s final act bears a striking resemblance to what Jackie Kennedy wore the day of JFK’s assassination?
So what is Almodovar getting with all this? In the first place, I believe that Almodovar’s intention – if I have to psychoanalyze it – may be to take a “dramatic” situation and play up the humorous aspects of it as much as possible until it seems like a powder keg ready to explode. He loves women, and as always seems to want to show what you can do to them if you mistreat them – the mode he chooses to show this in is what it is, however. I also, for that matter, don’t find it coincidental that near the beginning we are introduced (as in Law of Desire) to our female lead and her male counterpart dubbing over a movie – in this case, Nicholas Ray’sJohnny Guitar (1954), a quasi-feminist Western. In that film, we have a female heroine (Joan Crawford) who must outlast a female villain all-the-while an ineffectual gunslinger (Sterling Hayden in the role of the film’s namesake) stands by and does little but fall for Ms. Crawford all over again. The subtext not too subtly seems to be that you can push a woman down all you want but eventually she’s gonna get back up and defend herself – a lesson Pepa learns through the film’s duration.
Finally, I think, this most Almodovarian of plots is all a bit too much of a muchness. I can certainly understand it when Roger Ebert writes, in his review of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!:
His previous film was the widely-praised Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a movie I had a curious relationship with. I saw it once, and had no discernible reaction at all. It did not engage my attention for even a scene, and at the end I had trouble even remembering it. So I went to see it again, and the same thing happened.
That doesn’t mean the film contained nothing; what it means, I think, is that Almodovar’s polarities are so perfectly lined up in opposition to my own that it is quite possible for one of his movies to shoot right through my brain without striking a single cell. I seek an explanation for this phenomenon not in film criticism but in the behavior of subatomic particles.
Okay, so Women on the Verge… is a stylistic experiment meant to do nothing more than engage the vaguely humanitarian urges he had during What Have I Done to Deserve This?! (1984) which then took him over in later years (All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Volver sorta leap to mind), combined with the urge to do a totally straight-forward, absurd, farcical comedy, then maybe that’s all it should be trying to do and that it does it in an at least funny and entertaining way is something.
If the film feels a bit stagy at times, like it could almost come from a play, it is perhaps no small discovery that Almodovar borrowed the concept in part from The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau, a Parisian stage play from 1930. If the whole enterprise feels warm and amusing but hard to really invest too much emotion in, at least Almodovar’s experiment doesn’t finally obliterate the test tubes. Here, working with perhaps his most accessibly entertainingmaterial to date, he comes out a winner – and so do we.