Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios
MUJERES AL BORDE DE UN ATAQUE DE NERVIOS
(Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Production: El Desoe and Lauren Films; Eastmancolor; running time: 98 minutes.
Executive producer: Agustin Almodovar; associate producer: Antonio Llorens; screenplay: Pedro Almodovar; photography: Jose Luis Alcaine; editor: Jose Salcedo; sound: Guilles Ortion; music: Bernardo Bonezzi; costume designer: Jose Maria de Cossio.
Cast: Carmen Maura (Pepa); Antonio Banderas (Carlos); Fernando Guillén (Ivan); Julieta Serrano (Lucia); Maria Barranco (Candela); Rossy de Palma (Marisa); Kiti Manver (Paulina); with Chus Lampreave, Yayo Calvo; Lotes Leon, and Angel de Andres Lopez.
Bouza Vidal, Nuria, The Films of Pedro Almodovar, translated by Linda Moore and Victoria Hughes, Madrid, 1988.
Smith, Paul Julian, García Lorca/Almodóvar: Gender, Nationality,and the Limits of the Visible, Cambridge, 1995.
Vernon, Kathleen M., and Barbara Morris, editors, Post-Franco,Postmodern: The Films of Pedro Almodovar, Westport, 1995.
Allinson, Mark, A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovar, London, 2000.
Smith, Paul J., Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodovar, New York, 2000.
Bergdahl, G., "Pedro Almodovar—en motvillig surrealist," in Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 5, 1988.
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Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a hilarious, offbeat and witty farce, follows the attempts of Pepa, a television actress forcefully played by Carmen Maura, to confront her estranged betrayer, an aging Lothario of a voice-over actor, who is unable to stay faithful even to his mistress. Pepa's progress can be tracked by the film's music: it begins with seductive mariachi music, a paean to love and romance, switches to mock-heroic sounds, and ends with a bitter-sweet song about broken hearts. The comedy comes from several factors: the increasing absurdity of the unravelling situation; the quasi-feminist outlook on female-male relationships; and a truly brilliant reversal of manners and expectations.
Although some action takes place at Pepa's studio, at the home of her lover's wife, in a lawyer's office, and in a wildly decorated taxi driven by a bleached blond driver, the main action, like that of a French bedroom farce, occurs in a single setting: Pepa's luxurious, but rapidly disintegrating, penthouse apartment. As she becomes more and more disturbed about her relationship to Ivan, Pepa tosses his possessions and pictures about, sets her bed on fire, throws a telephone and telephone answering machine through a window, frees chickens and ducks encaged on her balcony, and makes a dangerous, barbiturate-spiked gazpacho which guests splash on carpet and couch. At the same time, the number of people in the apartment grows rapidly as disparate actions become entangled around Pepa and her unhappy romance. Candela, who finds herself part of a Shiite terrorist conspiracy, seeks refuge from the police. Ivan's son, Carlos, and his possessive girlfriend, Marisa, come looking for an apartment to rent. Ivan's wife, crazed with jealousy, comes for a confrontation with the woman she thinks is running away with her husband. A telephone repairman and two policemen investigating an anonymous call about terrorists join the party. Downstairs, Ivan and his new girlfriend try to quietly remove his suitcase from the concierge's cubicle, only to find themselves thwarted, their car accidentally bombarded by flying objects from Pepa's apartment. What makes all this chaos doubly hilarious is the calm with which it is received: this is the way normal life works.
As in a Buñuel film, unlikely coincidences and chance encounters bring together seemingly perfect strangers—all of whom engage in intense conversations about life and love and all of whom ultimately have some interest in an evening flight to Stockholm. And as in Buñuel serious concerns are treated with a light, witty, irreverent touch. Almodovar addresses questions of insanity, parental rejection of children, marital infidelity, the breakup of marriage and family, the use and abuse of barbiturates, suicide, Shiite terrorists blowing up airplanes full of innocent passengers, lawyers who betray their clients' interest for personal gain, feminism and so on. Typical is a television advertisement for detergents: Pepa plays a typical mother, proud of her detergent which removes even the hard-to-get stains of blood and guts left on her serial-murderer son's shirts.
All of Almodovar's women are frustrated by the childish self-absorption of the men with whom they are involved. Ivan has literally driven his wife crazy. Son Carlos—a chip off the old blockhead— finds himself immediately attracted to his father's mistress, Pepa, but at the same time physically drawn to Candela, while his virginal girlfriend is passed out in a gazpacho-induced drug stupor on the patio. Candela thought her affair with a Shiite romantic, but, when he bought home his fellow terrorists, she discovered she was a safe house, not an object of affection. Pepa has had a comfortable, long-term affair with Ivan, a handsome womanizing weakling whose sexual impulses lead him to betrayal after betrayal. While continuing to mouth sweet-nothings to Pepa, he is running away with his wife's lawyer, Paulina (who helped him win his wife's case against him), and Paulina herself finds Ivan murmuring sweet nothings to Pepa at the airport on his way to Stockholm with Paulina. The initial shots of Ivan sum up the male as butterfly: he glides past beautiful woman after beautiful woman and to each murmurs words of flattery, romance and love; he wants them all and turns readily from one attraction to the next as his eyes lead him on. At the end Ivan's wife finds solace in insanity and institutionalization; Candela plunges into a new affair with Carlos—a younger Ivan; Paulina is left wondering whether she really wants this man she has betrayed her professional ethics for; Lucia has found a dream of seduction more satisfying than her real-life fiancé; and Pepa has undergone a catharsis and is ready to begin her life anew. The last scene has Pepa and Lucia exchanging female confidences, one of which is that Pepa is carrying Ivan's child; the cycle continues.
Feminist concerns, however, take a backseat to comedy. Almodovar, again like Buñuel but with his own distinctive touch, piles surreal detail on surreal detail, all presented with a completely straight face. Pepa's balcony is her "Noah's Ark," with various animals installed two by two (no one finds this odd in downtown Madrid, which itself is a fakey set). The taxi driver who continually picks her up by absurdly happy accident has shockingly bleached-blond hair and an impressive variety of dry goods for sale in the backseat; when he fails to provide eye drops for her on one trip he apologetically restocks for the next taxi ride. Pepa flirts immediately and unapologetically with her lover's grown son; he unashamedly flirts back in front of his girlfriend and a strange young woman he will almost immediately make a pass at. Pepa's apartment manager is a Jehovah's Witness who apologizes profusely for not being able to lie; she wishes she could. The climatic chase scene with an aging woman on the back of an aging Harley Davidson motorcycle potting shots at the taxi cum boutique is handled straight. Post-Franco Spain is a funny place, says Almodovar.
Women on the Verge is the kind of comedy that loses much in translation into critical prose, but which rewards the viewer with a hilarious experience. It is also a refreshingly sane take on male-female relations, as Almodovar's women are brought to the brink by their childishly narcissistic men, only to recover their sanity on the verge of disaster.
—Andrew and Gina Macdonald