Judge Mike Pinsky turns in a juicy, concentrated review of this Almodóvar film.
"I'm sick of being good."—Pepa (Carmen Maura)
When Antonio Banderas cried at the Oscar's last year while presenting the Best Foreign Picture award to his old friend, Spain's Pedro Almodóvar, many Americans were puzzled. But Almodóvar is well known among film critics as Spain's most important living director (and second only to Luis Bunuel in that country's cinema history). Now MGM is releasing Almodóvar's brilliant and scorching satires on the relationships between men and women on DVD. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one of his most successful films, with great acting and perfectly timed comedy.
Facts of the Case
Pepa (Carmen Maura) lives in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Madrid. A successful television actress, she is surrounded by all the trappings of an affluent life. But that life is falling apart, as her live-in lover Ivan (Fernando Guillén) has run off with another woman. Worse yet, Ivan will not even face Pepa, leaving her answering machine messages in his suave, civilized voice calmly asking her to pack his bags and accept her fate.
But Pepa refuses to accept the breakup like a good girl. She considers taking sleeping pills (dumping them into a blender of gazpacho), then changes her mind. She lights her bed on fire, then decides to put it out. Is she cracking up? Is she just another hysterical woman?
Meanwhile, Pepa's best friend, Candela (María Barranco) has an even more serious problem: her boyfriend has just been arrested as a terrorist, and she needs to hide from the police. Pepa does not have time for this nonsense. After all, she is busy trying to find Ivan, and stalking Ivan's ex-wife (Julieta Serrano), whom Ivan drove to a mental institution twenty years ago. And when Ivan's henpecked son (Antonio Banderas) and pushy fiancée (Rossy de Palma) show up to rent Pepa's apartment (not knowing that she lives there), all the pieces fall into place for a day of chaos.
Much of my Deep Focus column on "A History of Hysteria" is devoted to situating this film in the discourse of "hysteria," as suggested by the film's very title. I will not repeat what I say there, so I recommend that you read that column as an accompaniment to this review. In short, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown deconstructs the long-standing image of women as "naturally emotional," always breaking down, always at fault for their own hysteria. Skillfully inserting references to classic portraits of "hysterical women," like soap operas and Sunset Boulevard, writer/director Pedro Almodóvar, whose films have long explored the terrain of gender identity (from the exploration of sexual power in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down to familial bonding in All About My Mother), sends up the clichés of hysteria. The plot situations are pure farce—crazy coincidences, slapstick-filled chase scenes—but the film never becomes campy or cartoony. Small touches add to the surrealism: a cheap looking miniature in the opening shot to represent Pepa's apartment block, Candela's weird coffeepot-shaped earrings, a pompadoured cab driver whose taxi is decked out with a Mambo theme. Most bizarre of all is Ivan's ex-wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), whose quest for revenge against Pepa and Ivan turns her into a monster bordering on camp.
But Almodóvar never lets his film actually descend into camp. He walks a thin edge, his film on the verge of its own nervous breakdown, held back by the strength of its performances and the depth of its characters. Carmen Maura, who is required to carry much of the emotional burden of the film, generates empathy for Pepa by showing her as a woman truly struggling with her own sense of self-worth in the face of a pointless rejection by a man who she knows is not worth her tears, but she cannot let go so easily. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, including a marvelously underplayed performance by Antonio Banderas as Carlos. Fans of his broader, more "macho" Hollywood performances will find that Banderas has long been an actor of great subtlety whose real talents have yet to be tapped fully by his American directors.
MGM presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in anamorphic widescreen, with a sharp and well-toned image. This is an older film, and like many foreign films, done on a smaller budget than a Hollywood picture. Nonetheless, the transfer looks fine. The soundtrack is mono only, but clear and without obvious flaws. I recommend sticking to the original Spanish soundtrack, but for those who balk at reading subtitles, MGM has provided a serviceable English dub. If it gets more people to enjoy this marvelous film, I'm all for it. No other extras are provided, other than a trailer designed for the original American release of the film (featuring an English voice-over and the original yellow subtitling from the theatrical run).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the multiple language options are a nice feature, there are no other extras. I know Almodóvar speaks some English, but probably is not fluent enough to carry an entire track, but perhaps a little something here from Antonio Banderas (commentary or an interview) might not only help illuminate the film, but would be a great promotional tie-in for MGM.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is highly recommended, and MGM has made the release affordable and accessible. A wonderful comedy with plenty of emotional depth, this film once again cements Pedro Almodóvar's reputation as one of Europe's most talented comedic directors.
All victims of Ivan's philandering, both female and male, are released on their own recognizance, with scheduled appointments for a little psychotherapy. Ivan is scheduled for immediate shock treatments. Pedro Almodóvar and company are thoroughly acquitted.
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