on 10 May 2008
This high-concept farce was probably the film that first propelled Almodovar into International consciousness more than 20 years ago. All the characteristic trademarks are here, including an escalating cascade of unlikely (but strangely convincing) events and a handful of wonderfully written parts for women, who all give superb performances, especially Carmen Maura in the central role. Every actress who works with Almodovar seems to emerge blessed by the experience both professionally and personally. Of course, as soon as you sit down to examine the thing rationally it evaporates into thin air but it is terrifically entertaining while it lasts and a great introduction to this marvellous Director. (It is also fun to see a very young Antonio Banderas doing great things with a bit of unlikely casting).
The new DVD has a fine print but few extras. However, on Amazon it's a bargain!
on 12 June 2002
The wildly hysterical international box office hit, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, introduces us to Pepa (Carmen Maura) who has just been jilted by an answering machine. The love of her life, Ivan, (Fernando Guillén) has just ended their relationship and she is heartbroken.
But misery does love company. Her girlfriend, Candela, has fallen in love with a terrorist. Ivan's son wants to rent the love nest Pepa shared with Ivan. Ivan's crazed wife arrives with loaded guns and Ivan himself is about to fly off to Stockholm with his new girlfriend on a plane that Candela's boyfriend plans to hijack. Pedro Almodovar's films are usually twisted, zany, and a bit disconcerting. This is probably one of his best films, along with "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down", (also starring Banderas). He uses many of the same actors in his films, but this is probably the best use of Maura in any of his films. Pepa is a strong, formidable character that evolves throughout "Women." From first meeting her in the film it appears that she is shallow and one-dimensional, but in the final scenes of the movie, particularly when she finally gets a hold of Ivan, you realize that she is indeed a decent person.
It's enough to drive any woman to a nervous breakdown - or beyond, in this madcap farce from acclaimed director Pedro Almlódovar.
Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar gained international recognition in 1988 with this hilarious black comedy (or perhaps farce) – the film being nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar – and, whilst I must admit to having a slight a preference for his later, 'more serious’ films (Talk To Her, All About My Mother, Volver, etc), WOTVOANB remains for me one of his most infectious and (out-and-out) enjoyable films. Of course, it being an Almodovar film, any suggestions of 'trivial comedic froth’ (à la much of Hollywood’s output in this genre) can be quickly dismissed and instead we get a marvellously visual tour-de-force (courtesy of regular Almodovar collaborator, cinematographer José Luis Alcaine), full of cinematic references and showcasing a host of engaging acting performances, which, in keeping this director’s work (and as the title suggests), focus particularly on the female of the species.
Thematically, whilst the spectre of religion inevitably hovers over proceedings (crosses abounding plus Chus Lampreave’s hilarious turn as the concierge/Jehovah’s witness) and there is an oblique reference to Spain’s troubled past via the film’s outlandish 'terrorist thread’, we’re predominantly concerned with duplicitous human relationships (from a female perspective). Carmen Maura is (once again in an Almodovar film) outstanding as the alternately distraught and ironically comical voiceover actress Pepa, romantically spurned by Fernando Guillén’s mature fellow actor, Iván, who has taken up with Kiti Manver’s lawyer Paulina Morales, riling both Pepa and his 'ex-wife’, Julietta Serrano’s jealous, disturbed Lucia. All four of these actors deliver superb turns, belying what could have been a 'straight melodrama’ with some cutting moments of dark humour. Thence, Almodovar sets up his central 'farce’ in Pepa’s apartment by means of a series of coincidences and confusions, bringing together Pepa, her best friend Maria Barranco’s kooky Candela (under the 'terrorist threat’) and flat-hunting couple, Antonio Banderas’ Carlos (son to Lucia and Iván) and Rossy de Palma’s Marisa, before throwing in a sleeping pill-laced jug of gazpacho, two bumbling cops, a telephone repair man and (arriving on the scene) Lucia herself. Much hilarity ensues, of course. Completing Almodovar’s 'comedy set-up’, mention should also be made of Loles León’s brilliant turn as the brassy receptionist, whose cynicism of Pepa’s ‘gullible romanticism’ is another highlight.
The comedy, whilst often hilarious, is overlain by Almodovar with some ingenious symbolism. The difficulty experienced in male-female communication is brilliantly conveyed by the repeated use of an answering machine, whose spools give it a human resemblance, and by which Pepa and Iván exchange increasingly desperate messages. Pepa’s dilemma (and the film’s focus on 'listening’ rather than 'seeing’) is also given added weight by Almodovar’s inclusion of the brilliant sequence in which Pepa and Iván separately dub voiceovers onto films (including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar), in effect mirroring their own circumstances. Almodovar’s 'homage symbolism’ also includes nods to Hitchcock via Pepa’s espying through a window a bikini-clad dancer (Rear Window) and the close-up on Pepa’s glasses, following her fainting fit (Strangers On A Train). Bernardo Bonezzi’s soundtrack also evokes the theme from Vertigo and the film also makes stirring use of Rimksy-Korsakov (Scherezade and Capriccio Espagnol). Almodovar has also cited Saul Bass (another Hitchcock collaborator) as his inspiration for the film’s amazing opening title sequence (to Lola Beltrán’s song Soy Infeliz), which conjures up Pepa’s romantic, stylish, sexy, coiffured (but illusory) 'dreamworld’.
For all the film’s cynical take on romanticism and duplicity, however, Almodovar never loses sight of the humanity of his characters and it is this quality which combines with the film’s hilarity and style to produce an outstanding piece of cinema.
on 12 September 2009
This is a fantastic early Almodovar film starring a much younger and geekier Antonio Banderas. It's a funny and slightly mad film that is always enjoyable to watch. Comes in Spanish with English subtitles.
on 20 January 2014
"Women on the Verge" is Almodovar at his lightest and fluffiest and is a good introduction to the filmmaker.
Unlike some of his darker and more twisted films, I felt comfortable watching this one with my teenager who's studying Spanish.
on 27 March 2009
a wonderful film, still as entertaining as ever, its just a shame that the Optimum (hah!) release is framed at 1.78:1 instead of the correct ratio - note the incomplete cast names on the famous opening credit sequence for example. Also has burned on subtitles to annoy all those Spanish speakers out there. Otherwise I'd give it 5 stars
A brilliant farce from the heady 80s when Almodovar was poised between the shock for shock's sake of his early films and the more upholstered feel of his more recent work, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown has a unique, zany quality that stands up very well today. The story is odd and seems to glide into the film out of nothing, gradually. By the end it has become quite taut, and you wonder how he has done it out of such material. Coincidences abound but it centres on Pepa, played by a fabulous Carmen Maura, who has been left by her cowardly lover, is subletting the flat she shared with him to his son, by pure coincidence, has a friend who is caught up with some terrorists descend on her, and the deranged wife of the lover, fresh from an asylum. Throw in the wonderful Rossy De Palma as the son's girlfriend, a "high maintenance" girl who drinks some spiked gazpacho and has a transforming erotic dream, two dopey policemen, a telephone repair man described by Pepa as "a doll", and some ducks and hens on a huge terrace overlooking Madrid, and you have an extraordinary concoction. Full of funny lines, flirtatious moments, changes of clothes and glorious performances, the comedy builds to almost dangerous levels as the wife loses her sense of proportion completely. The images are wonderfully vivid and strange, with a lot of use of voices and recordings to give a sense of dislocation, yet it is so tightly-packed. It is good to see Antonio Banderas in an early role, but the plum part is really Maura's, her expressive eyes holding you through her travails and conveying both heartache and camp comedy at full tilt. She also brings tremendous style to a gazpacho-toned masterpiece, one of the few films where you see a clutch of beef tomatoes in gorgeous close-up, even if the scene is cut short by a nicked finger ...
on 2 January 2015
Having recently attended a preview of the new musical based on the film which my partner had not seen I rented it to show what the musical was based on. After all this time it might look a little dated, but the concept and execution of it was as fresh as I when I first saw it and my partner loved it. I hope the new musical will inspire people to go back to the original source and re enjoy the film which Almodovar at his very best.
Great fun, as Almodovar's visual sophistication continues to expand from film to film, and his ability to create a subtle mix of the campy, the surreal, and real emotion grows ever stronger. Full of odd and silly twists and turns, and populated by absurd but still very human characters. It's also a film with a theme - the amazing strength and resilience of women.
So why not a 5 star rating for a film a lot of smart people consider a flat-out masterpiece?. Maybe I need to re-see it a third time, but on recent round of working my way through all of Almodovar's films, it felt paper thin. I enjoyed it, but it didn't feel like a film that would stick with me, or effect me. In some ways, I found the far more flawed `Matador' has more unforgettable images, moments and challenging power. That said, this is still very worth your time. You'll smile a lot.
on 26 October 2015
Pedro Almodóvar changed his menu in 1987 when he set up his own production company, El Deseo and made the deliriously spiced-up calorie-heavy melodrama The Law of Desire. With the ingredients of postmodern inter-textual pastiche, meaty gender-bending and meta-cinema laced with coke and lashings of hot sex to underline the director’s perennial obsession with love, the film comes over as a lavish entrée following the five rough and rude hors d’oeuvres that were his earlier films. Ditching the spiciest most controversial flavorings by moving the melodrama away from tragedy toward comic farce, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) is a delightful soufflé designed to clean the palette before plunging back into the intoxicatingly rich love goulash that is Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990). A three course meal capped with a fairy tale happy ending for the last film which could be considered dessert, this ‘trilogy of desire’ marks a career-high for chef extraordinaire Almodóvar. Only the 5 melodramas following The Flower of My Secret (1995) really come close to equaling the culinary delights he puts on the table here.
Make no mistake, Women on the Verge… is a top quality comedy-farce. Like all the best examples of its kind, the story is ridiculous and it would be pointless and altogether criminal to attempt a detailed synopsis. It’s best to relish the film’s rich and wacky absurdity as it unfolds for yourself. The main woman on the verge is Pepa (the wonderful Carmen Maura stunning us as ever with her vivacious versatility), a Madrid-based actress who works for a TV company making CMs and dubbing foreign films. In a deliberate re-working of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine the film spot checks 48 hours in her life. She’s on the rebound from a failed affair wherein she is submitted to torture by telephone. The other women are Candela (María Barranco), Pepa’s nymphomaniac friend on the run from Shi-ite terrorists; Marisa (Rossy de Palma), an up-tight virginal Picasso-faced prospective tenant of Pepa’s penthouse; Paulina (Kiti Mánver), a reptilian feminist lawyer with a contradictory taste in men; and finally Lucia (Julieta Serrano), a madwoman recently released from a Swedish mental asylum looking for revenge. Playing up against this rich gallery of fruitcake à la femme, the men don’t have a chance. There’s Carlos (a completely unrecognizable but superb Antonio Banderas), Lucia’s mild and stuttering son; two Amodóvar-trademark gormless chauvinist cops; a cute telephone engineer; a hilarious cabby (Guillermo Montesinos) who bends over backwards to please his passengers; and Iván (Fernando Guillén), the male chauvinist pig-actor who causes all the mayhem in the first place. While I’m listing the characters, there’s also Chus (Almodóvar stalwart Chus Lampreave) as the characterful Jehovah’s Witness manager of Pepa’s apartment building, and a newscaster (Francisca Cabellero, Almodóvar’s mother). I mention all of them because this is first and foremost an ensemble film. Even if Carmen Maura’s gloriously evoked portrait of hysteria grabs the spotlight, the playing that surrounds her is uniformly stunning and it’s the rich tapestry worked between the whole cast together that stays most vividly in the mind.
A plot synopsis is off the menu so all I can offer are some tasty samples for this film is rich in wonderful Almodóvar moments – from Iván’s introduction via a breath-freshener spray CM to a phallic plastic flower wilting in front of Pepa’s burning bed to the exotic strains of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade; from Pepa’s public address-system announced scene with the rude receptionist at the TV studio (the wonderful Loles León who we see a lot more of in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) to the building manager’s refusal to lie because she’s a Jehovah’s Witness; and from Marisa’s gazpacho-inspired wet dream to the surreal delights of Lucia on a motorbike firing off her gun in all directions. Most of the film takes place in Pepa’s penthouse where the stunningly successful farce plays out beautifully courtesy of the fabulous acting coupled with the best gag of the lot featuring some spiked gazpacho. The plot is hopelessly involved, twisting and turning with unlikely coincidences, but it pans out expertly, starting slowly with Pepa’s depression, but gradually picking up speed before spiraling deliciously out of control as if the gazpacho is being made before our very eyes.
In some ways this is an atypical Almodóvar film. No sex, no violence, no nudity, no drug abuse, its lack of transgression makes it the only one I can safely show the family, and was his only out and out comedy until 2013’s I’m So Excited! More than any other film it sealed his reputation as a “woman’s director” to be mentioned in the same breath as George Cukor or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This though is cemented by a number of his films (The Flower of My Secret covers exactly the same ground, but playing emotional rejection straight without any of this film’s comic-farce), and what we notice (if we can stop ourselves laughing!) is how Women on the Verge… states so clearly the thematics of Almodóvar’s worldview. Very obvious is the film’s championship of womankind over male chauvinist patriarchy. A constant theme since Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) and a reaction against old Spanish values perpetuated by the Franco regime, we notice here how Iván has all the women on the verge by his actions, but how they rise to his challenge basically by working together as a sisterhood.
It is always interesting to me how Almodóvar though not ostensibly a political director, manages to include some kind of comment on Spain and the state of the nation. All of his films from Pepi, Luci, Bom through to Kika (1993) can be construed as an attack on values upheld by old style Francoism. In this film this includes an attack on machismo with the treatment of Iván as well as the incorporation of terrorism into the plot. Accredited to Shi-ites here, this may or may not be a coded comment on Basque separatism, but more to the point, Almodóvar’s script highlights violence committed by his characters on each other as terrorist acts. When Candela sees a broken window not knowing Pepa had thrown her telephone through it, she calls it “an act of terrorism”. When the record Pepa throws through the window hits Paulina on the head, once again the reaction is “terrorism”. According to this rationale, all of Iván’s actions which have caused so much pain make him the biggest “terrorist” of all. This recalls to me not so much the ‘outer’ terrorism’ of bombs and mass protest movements, but the ‘inner’ terrorism perpetrated by spurned lovers on each other à la Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
This brings me to that other perennial Almodóvar concern – the postmodern examination of cinema itself. Although not stated as aggressively as in The Law of Desire or in the later Kika, here we have inter-textual pastiche (melodrama submerged in comedy and farce with Hitchcockian thriller elements), meta-fiction (scenes in the TV studio making CMs and dubbing films), faction (the ever-present CMs – in this case advertising breath freshener spray, condoms and washing powder – coupled with ‘real life’ TV news bulletins), paranoia (all the women here are caught in their own personal vortexes of angst) and constant referencing to other films. There’s a well-worked scene based around Pepa and Iván dubbing (without actually meeting each other) a key confrontation in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) which is beautifully ironic. This is followed immediately by Pepa fainting and a shot of her prone body through her spectacles which quotes the fairground murder scene in Strangers on a Train (1951). Hitchcock appears again later when Pepa sits on a public bench and studies people going about their daily lives through their apartment windows. Rear Window (1954) must be the Hitchcock film that appears the most in Almodóvar. The film’s final chase to the airport can also be described as ‘Hitchcockian’ (as can other thriller elements which I can’t divulge) even if no particular film is evoked.
Other Almodóvar constants are readily apparent throughout this film from the very chic art used in the opening credits through the loud garish costumes and fast motor-mouth delivery of street-inflected speech to the very impressively designed interior of Pepa’s penthouse (a very expensive set, Almodóvar got his money’s worth by re-using it in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and the tightly-organized script. The film comes over as organized chaos (and was apparently a logistical nightmare for Almodóvar to make), but the plot is actually ingeniously worked out and makes sense. A lot of people prefer this period of the director’s career even to the best of his films made later such as All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002), because of that very tangible exciting sense of anarchy lurking behind every scene. He later became slicker and correspondingly deeper, but perhaps lost the ‘edge’ that is so evident both here and in the two films that surround it. One thing’s for sure – Women on the Verge… was an outrageous hit around the world and made sure whatever Almodóvar would do next, the whole world would be watching. It goes without saying that this film is essential viewing. Best buy it as part of Optimum World’s The Almodóvar Collection Vol.1. Very cheap and with excellent picture quality (aspect ratio 1.85:1), it comes with three other films – Pepi, Luci, Bom, Dark Habits (1983) and What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984). All come with useful introductions by José Arroyo as well. It’s a feast that no cinema gourmet can afford to leave unordered.