By Kate Hearst.
As statistics continue to demonstrate the persistent imbalance of women’s representation on screen, Pedro Almodovar’s Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), beautifully restored by Criterion, is like a shot of pure estrogen. This screwball comedy, one of Almodovar’s best, packs a full range of onscreen women: our passionate heroine Pepa (Carmen Maura), a cringe-worthy wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), a frosty fiancé Marisa (Rossy de Palma), and a naïve best friend (Maria Barranco). Few films capture such a panoply of female types, personalities, and emotions. Criterion’s re-release could not have come at a better time and provides rich supplemental materials, including commentaries recorded in 2016 by Pedro Almodovar, Augustin Almodovar, Carmen Maura, Richard Peña, and an essay by Elvira Lindo.
The film’s plot is a simple one. Pepa has been jilted by her lover Ivan (Fernando Guillen) and she tries frantically to contact him to talk. In the commentary, Almodovar explains his obsession with Jean Cocteau’s play, The Human Voice (1930), written as a monologue of a woman whose lover has left. In Almodovar’s hands, this narrative is complicated in all sorts of comic and disruptive ways, as Pepa encounters Ivan’s wife Lucia, his son Carlos (Antonio Banderas), and Carlos’ fiancé, Marisa.
Early on, we discover that Pepa and Ivan are actors who, among other things, dub American movies. Almodovar chooses a poignant bar scene from Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), where Pepa and Ivan are to voice Sterling Hayden and Joan Crawford, respectively. We see Ivan in the studio speaking the words of Sterling Hayden, but a distraught Pepa oversleeps and is absent for this recording. As a result, in this film-within-a-film sequence, Sterling Hayden talks onscreen, but when the image of Joan Crawford appears, no words are heard. She is effectively silenced. With this conceit, Almodovar explores the notion of voice as disconnected from body and from action. His construction of this scene is particularly haunting, when we later witness Pepa finally gaining the power to speak her truth to her lying ex-lover.
Carmen Maura’s performance is mesmerizing. We see the wheels of her mind turning, as she wordlessly clears out Ivan’s clothes from the closet, stuffs his things into a suitcase, and lights a cigarette, then the bed on fire. After putting her apartment up for rent, Pepa serendipitously meets Ivan’s son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), whom she never knew existed, and his frosty fiancé Marisa who’ve come to look at the apartment. Complications mount as the fiancé drinks the gazpacho laced with barbiturates, which Pepa intended for her own suicide, and Carlos falls in love with Pepa’s girlfriend Candela, who has gotten into hot water after discovering her ex-boyfriend is a wanted Shiite terrorist.
Almodovar is masterful in his updating of the American screwball comedy of the forties. In his reinterpretation of this genre, he effectively mixes camera styles, choosing shots more reminiscent of Hitchcock thrillers with close-ups of telephones and tracking shots of shoes pacing. These camera choices create terrific tension as the comedy unfolds. Additionally, the opening and closing of his film are quintessentially surrealistic. The first scene sports a fake sunrise with model buildings and cars as backdrop, while later live chickens and ducks populate the balcony in the foreground. From the beginning, we expect the unexpected.
The mise-en-scene and costumes are bright and colorful, a far cry from the drabness of Franco-era films. Pepa is frequently in reds against ocre backgrounds. Indeed, Almodovar’s cinema is a rupture from the past, representing a new generation alive in a post-Franco Spain. In his commentary, Almodovar explains he purposely created a fictional cinematic world where everything functions, except of course, relationships between men and women. One charming example is that a taxi appears always when Pepa needs one. Hilariously, the taxi driver (Guillermo Montesinos) has stocked the interior of his car with items he thinks his passengers may desire during their ride: magazines, newspapers, aspirin, among other things.
Though Franco is dead and well-stocked taxis are always available, men continue to lie and leave. However, once Almodovar’s women embrace the idea that they have choices of their own, they can carry on and prevail. In the end, Pepa reveals that she is pregnant and perfectly content to raise a child on her own. Marisa, the frosty fiancé who is a virgin, admits that she’s had an orgasm all by herself in her dreams, while knocked out by the spiked gazpacho. These narrative updates to the American screwball comedy function in ways both subversive and profound.
Ultimately, Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown continues to resonate, as relationships between women and men, and all sorts of coupling, continue to challenge.
 See “Inequality in 900 Popular Films,” released on July 31, 2017 by Dr. Stacy Smith’s Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC Annenberg. This newest study shows that for the past nine years (2007-2016), less than one-third of speaking characters on screen were girls/women.
Kate Hearst is working on a book, The Cinema of Barbara Kopple: American Activist. She earned her PhD and MFA in Film at Columbia University and has been teaching film history since 2011.