I have a confession. I have a big blind spot when it comes to Pedro Almodóvar. What is my excuse? I have none. Prior to viewing this film, I had seen Volver and the recent Oscar nominee Pain & Glory. That was it. The worst part about how little Almodóvar I had seen, I really loved those two movies.
I saw Volver in theaters at the beginning of my Oscar nominee completist days and sat stunned at the strong-willed women soldiering on through life despite the shitty men that surrounded them. It was frankly like nothing I had seen before and it should have led me down a Pedro wormhole. Alas, other things got in the way.
Why did I choose Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown? It sounded like Volver as a comedy and that was all I needed. The following 89 minutes were a horny blur of bold pantsuits, gazpacho, terrorist plots, secrets, and fun…oh, so much fun.
The film is anchored by the presence and resourcefulness of its lead Pepa (Carmen Maura) as she desperately tries to contact her lover Ivan with big news. Along the way, she is joined in her apartment by her friend Candela (Maria Barranco), Ivan’s former lover and psychopath Lucia (Julieta Serrano), Ivan’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his fiancé Marisa (Rossy de Palma).
Almodovar lives in the fantastical. The characters don’t have normal jobs, they work as voice over artists for classic films. They don’t dress plainly, they dress in bright colors and the latest fashions. When their lovers leave, they don’t act normally, they go insane and are committed to an asylum. When they meet a mysterious man and have an erotic weekend, the man is not some traveling salesman, he is an international terrorist. This feature elevates what would be a light comedy into the farcical heights it reaches.
Let’s talk about horniness, because it’s one of the film’s defining characteristics. When we first meet Candela, she launches into the story about all the sex she was having with the terrorist. When we first meet Carlos, he brings along his fiancé and almost immediately starts feeling up and seducing Candela. The film’s “antagonist” Ivan sleeps his way through every woman he comes in contact with. Though all the relationships in the film are heterosexual, there’s a hanging sense of playful seduction in the air, regardless of gender. All the while, it seems so innocent. It’s like the film is saying, “It’s just playful sex, nothing to get excited over.”
This is one of the central themes. The men burst into the lives of these women, sleep with them and move on with their lives. Meanwhile, the women can’t move on because of the consequences of the men’s actions. Lucia can’t get past her love for Ivan and must kill him to keep him away from other women. Candela’s sex-filled weekend might end up with her in prison. Marissa might end up alone after Carlos leaves her. Pepa (we learn at the film’s end) is pregnant with Ivan’s child.
Despite these real consequences, it doesn’t mean the film can’t have loads of fun. Pepa’s telephone keeps getting destroyed. Records fly off balconies and hit slutty women on the street. Cops show up to talk to Candela and everyone gets knocked out with spiked gazpacho. There’s a mad dash to the airport featuring a roadway gunfight, hijacked motorcycles and talkative taxi drivers.
Almodovar and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine (who shoots many of Almodovar’s films) move things briskly with a wide lense at all the moving pieces. The climatic chase allows everyone to show off and bring us some iconic shots.
All the while, the shots frame Pepa’s struggle with coming to terms with her life situation and that life will obviously (as the film progresses) not include Ivan.
Almodovar is now 3/3 with me and as much as I am disappointed in myself that I have limited my knowledge of his films to three, I was thrilled to have enjoyed everything as much as I have. If you have Almodovar’s films as a blind spot, I encourage you to jump in on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
I now will find myself in a Pedro-hole that I should have been in to begin with.