Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Dir. Pedro Almodovar. Starring Carmen Maura, Maria Barranco, Antonio Banderas

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From a narrative perspective, it is a minor miracle that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown can add characters at the breakneck speed that it does without losing track of the plot or slowing it down even a little. In under ninety minutes, coincidences compile and congeal together until it seems like the whole world has congregated under the marquee of Pepa’s life. What should be a fairly simple breakup between adults has ramifications for national security and might lead to murder in an airport, and it all happens so naturally, too.

The nucleus of the film is Pepa (Maura), an actress in her late thirties or early forties who specializes in voice acting, like her former lover, Ivan (Fernando Guillen). In a black and white ad, we get a fair sense of what kind of man Ivan is. He has the telenovela voice that people my age know best from Jane the Virgin. In a long tracking shot, he tells an endless series of women in different costumes from around the world that he loves her, that she’s the only woman for him, she’s the loveliest woman, she’s his ideal, etc., etc. It has been a long enough relationship that Pepa is truly broken by it. In the first few scenes of the film, we see that she’s unable to sleep without taking sleeping pills, that she’s losing her consistency at work (and that just saying Joan Crawford’s lines in Johnny Guitar is enough to bring her to tears as long as Ivan is dubbing Sterling Hayden’s.) She accidentally lights her bed on fire, leaves the room, and when she returns the bed looks like an object from a horror movie. She scrambles to get the hose from her patio. What remains of the bed afterwards is a charred mess, the blue of the sheets still present on the margins but for the most part replaced with the crusty blackness of the bed frame itself. The symbolism here is as obvious as, well, a bed on fire, and it’s welcome in this movie which takes our stereotypical perceptions and turns them up to a ridiculous rating. Women are emotional beings first and foremost, given to hysterical reactions over simple things – so it’s said, anyway, and especially by men. Almodovar creates a world in which women are not merely hysterical but for all practical purposes insane, satirizing the way that we expect women to be depicted. Decisions are never merely strange: they are operatic. Pepa sets the bed on fire and spikes the gazpacho with a month’s worth of sleeping pills. Candela (Barranco) accidentally hosts a terrorist cell and tries to jump from Pepa’s balcony. Lucia (Julieta Serrano) paints eyelashes on her eyelids and eyesockets for the voluminous effect and wears a series of wigs in hairstyles that would have embarrassed Dusty Springfield. She’s also, by her own admission, crazy as a bedbug and wants to kill Ivan, her ex-husband. Candela and Lucia are the next electron shell out from Pepa; beyond the two of them are Carlos (Banderas) and Marisa (Rossy de Palma), Ivan’s son and his fiancee, who are coming to see if they’d like to have Pepa’s flat. Then there’s Paulina (Kiti Manver) in the next shell out, the feminist lawyer who’s going away with Ivan to Stockholm on the flight that might be hijacked by the Shiite terrorists Candela accidentally harbored. All of them are important people to the story, and they are folded into the story like ingredients in a cake batter. Candela, maybe the second most important character in the film, is a surprising addition; we had gotten used to the idea of Pepa obsessing over Ivan. She spends most of her first several minutes on screen badgering Pepa. I’m in terrible trouble! she cries over and over again without ever saying what the matter is. (Having received too many voice messages from Candela, Pepa rips her phone out of the wall and throws it through a window. It’s understandable.) In a similar mold, Lucia and Carlos are seen briefly before they become important people with minds and motivations; there’s no hint that Lucia will become a dowdy Bond villain by the end of the movie the first time we run into her.

My favorite shell is that of the ancillary people, the mouthy and memorable folks who find themselves swept up in a plot which is so strange that at least one of them comments on its movielike aspects. They are Jeff Goldblum’s Tricycle Man in Nashville, each of them essential to the plot as functional vehicles and whose personalities are unnecessary but glorious. There’s the secretary at the studio, whose concern for what is private and what is public has been totally eroded thanks to putting through calls all day; she has her mouth on a microphone through a conversation with Pepa and seems totally ignorant of it. There’s the landlady, who is a Jehovah’s Witness and has a remarkable conversation with Ivan, who has come to pick up his suitcase. Ivan decides that it’s not worth it to wait around for it and tells the landlady not to tell Pepa he’s come through. She’s horrified. I can’t lie to her about it, she says. What if she asks me directly? I’m a Jehovah’s Witness; we can’t lie! As Ivan, a little weirded out by her sincerity, walks away, she calls out to him. I wish I could! she says. It’s really hard to manage it! My absolute favorite is the guy running the mambo taxi (Guillermo Montesinos), which is upholstered in brightly colored faux-furs and which has a mambo soundtrack – or any other kind, he has all kinds of music. He’s the one who, when Pepa is following Lucia via taxis, says that he thought this kind of thing only happened in films. He has Chris Tucker’s haircut from The Fifth Element before The Fifth Element. Pepa asks him if he has any eyedrops during his second time driving her. Eyedrops! he says. Why don’t I have eyedrops? and he begins to cry as well. (After Lucia has thrown the drugged gazpacho in Pepa’s eyes, Pepa gets the mambo taxi again – this time, outfitted with the eyedrops which restore her sight. I mean, of course.) These characters, and a couple more scattered here and there, are folks who help build the satire. The situations in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown are ridiculous, but it’s the movies. What makes that ridiculousness over the top is a setting which is equally absurd, a world in which mambo taxis really exist and people come unwanted to the Jehovah’s Witness’ doorstep.

What makes Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown shine, in my eyes, is that it is deliriously fun. Even when international terrorism is entered in the plot, seriousness is not at a premium. When Marisa takes the gazpacho de Morpheus out of the fridge and drinks it without knowing its uniquely soporific quality, no one is terribly concerned about it. There’s a general chorus of “Oh dear, she’s drugged herself to sleep, no, no need for a doctor, we’ll just leave her in this lawn chair.” Later on that gazpacho will be used to drug two police officers investigating Pepa’s possible ties to the Shiite terrorists; no one gives much thought to the consequences of knocking those guys out, but then again it’s unimportant to the story. (To ensure that it looks like a mistake, Candela and Carlos drink some too.) Pepa, even when she is writhing with her misery, is too charming and too active to ever really be that whiny person from a teenybopper novel. She changes her clothes frequently, going out in brightly colored but mostly similar suits; one half expects her to pull the Letty Lynton dress out of her closet by the end of the movie. Candela and Marisa are both dressed trendy; Banderas’ hair is utterly unlike the smooth look that would amplify his smoldering image in the years to come. In the film, part of all of this liveliness is some reaction to the end of Franco’s rule a decade earlier, but part of it is merely creating festivity. There is a carnival feel to what happens in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and not in that creepy sense of freaks and geeks and phantoms. The film exemplifies the kind of rush that a child feels when she sees the Ferris wheel and smells the funnel cake, a sugary and coruscating breathlessness that goes on and on until, a little worn out but still totally exhilarated, it’s time to go home and sleep deeply and peacefully.

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