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Posts Tagged ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’

For a while there I thought I wasn’t taking this Almodovarathon idea nearly seriously enough, with weeks often going by between my watching the different films in question. But that was when I rather foolishly thought the world would only be on pause for a few weeks, maybe a month or so: I’m quite glad I didn’t rush through them all, to be honest, because I would have run out a while ago.

And so I find myself watching the first Pedro Almodovar movie to acquire any sort of cultural traction in the UK (by which I mean, of course, that it warranted a mention in the cinema review section of Radio Times): Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, released in 1988. It has been pointed out that this film has not quite been optimally translated into English, certainly when it comes to the title. The Spanish title is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and apparently (snappy though the extant English title is) ataque de nervios more accurately means an attack of nerves, or panic attack.

Certainly there are a lot of stressed women in this film, chief amongst them being Pepa (Carmen Maura), a reasonably successful actress (she gets recognised in the street and asked to do commercials, in both cases because she plays ‘the killer’s mother’ in a popular crime TV show). She also has a gig doing the Spanish dub of various foreign movies, and it seems that it is here she has met Ivan (Fernando Guillen), one of those charming, silver-fox kind of older dudes who ladies seem to go for. Pepa and Ivan have been an item for some time, but now it seems they have split up – Pepa, however, urgently needs to speak to him about a pressing personal matter.

Pepa’s futile search for Ivan is the core of the movie, and she grows increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit erratic as the film goes on and he seems to be actively trying to dodge speaking with her. Other elements of her life start to pile up on her, making things even more confusing and complex: her young friend Candela (Maria Barranco) turns up at her flat, confessing that she has unwittingly become romantically involved with a group of Shi’ite Muslim terrorists; a young couple, looking to lease the flat, arrive for a viewing and – in a typically outrageous piece of Almodovar plotting – it turns out that the young man (Antonio Banderas) is actually Ivan’s son. Ivan’s mentally unstable ex-wife arrives, and so do the police, not to mention a phone repairman (Pepa has been taking her frustrations out on the handset). It seems like the only person not wanting to talk to Pepa is Ivan himself…

At one point a minor character, who’s just had the events of the movie summarised for him, looks blank and says ‘You’ve got to be pulling my leg’: this is blatantly a black, screwball farce, and the director seems to be revelling in how preposterous it all is. That said, it does take a little while to get up to speed, and the first act is something of a slow start, where it’s unclear exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be and how we are supposed to respond to it. Or perhaps this is another sign of Almodovar’s increasing confidence and deftness as a director: as we first meet and get to know Pepa, she does seem genuinely upset and the film looks like it may be dealing with relatively serious issues. But once all this is established and we’ve become invested in Pepa and her situation, the tone of the film noticeably lightens and the pace picks up. Before long there are tongue-in-cheek gags about Islamic terrorism, a running joke about a jug of gazpacho soup spiked with sleeping pills, and by the end Almodovar can cheerfully include a car chase involving a gun-toting mental patient on a motorbike and it somehow feels like much of a piece with what has gone before.

The combination of outrageous plotting, vivid characterisation, and colourful composition does seem to me to mark this as the film in which Almodovar’s classic style first comes together – needless to say, several members of his unofficial rep company also appear in the movie. Chus Lampreave gets a small part as the Jehovah’s Witness concierge of Pepa’s building, Banderas gets a nice, but relatively minor role, and the film is essentially carried by Carmen Maura, who gives another one of those strong-but-quietly-vulnerable performances which are practically another hallmark of Almodovar’s style.

As the title suggests, this is a film almost exclusively about the actions and concerns of its female characters, and it’s told from their perspective. The men are almost exclusively feckless, useless, or actually stupid, almost without exception a source of problems for the women around them. Pepa’s success at the end of the film, when it comes, is not that she finally manages to track Ivan down and have the conversation with him she’s been desperately wanting all film: it’s that she realises what a waste of space he is and decides he’s no longer worth her time, as a result becoming much less stressed and unhappy.

It’s an appropriate note for the film to close on, and entirely fitting for a film with a definite (if initially well-hidden) feminist subtext to it. The end of the film satisfies, even if, as a whole, it is not quite as masterfully assembled as some of Almodovar’s later films would be: the focus is not initially clear, and the director is not quite as slick as he would later become in selling his more outrageous turns of plotting to the audience. Nevertheless, this film is a lot of fun, once it gets going: it is still a bit rough around the edges, but in its tone, style, and outlook, it is the earliest Almodovar film that I’ve seen which genuinely feels like it anticipates the likes of All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Even if it’s not quite up to their standard, it’s still well worth watching.

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