Please read Part Two
“Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown” (“Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios”), Almodovar’s first publicly acknowledged masterpiece, is an incisively sexy romp about obsessive love in all its shapes and forms. Abounding with gaiety, melodrama, and hysterics, the elements are merged together effectively, resulting in Almodovar’s most commercially successful work to date. “Women on the Verge” was named best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) in 1988, and Almodovar was named best young director at the EFA (European Film Awards). The film also won best screenplay at Venice Film Festival, where it had received its world premiere.
With “Women on the Verge,” Almodovar consolidated his reputation as a cult moviemaker, demonstrating ease at inventing stunning visual jokes and masterfully staging gags. He also has coaxed superb performances out of his uniformly skillful cast. This begins with Carmen Maura, an Almodovar regular and consummate farceuse, who brings out the pathos, the tragic, but also the joyous elements of the melodrama with remarkable energy and authenticity.
Based on a series of missed connections and funny coincidences, the narrative is triggered by a single event. Ivan (Fernando Guillen), a desirable married man, abruptly abandons his longtime lover Pepa (Carmen Maura), unaware that she is pregnant with his child. Desperate, Pepa is frantically trying to track down her elusive lover, first via hysterical phone messages, then via more personal and dangerous pursuits, finally encountering him in person by ironically saving his life. Pepa’s search unfolds as a road movie, replete with hysterical drives and loopy chases by any form of transportation, taxicab (also driven by the same blond and jolly driver, played by Almodovar himself), various cars, and even punks’ motorcycles.
Pepa meets the various women in Ivan’s life, including his crazy wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), by whom he has fathered a now-grown-up son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), who’s handsome but shy and insecure, indicated, among other things by his eye-glasses and gentle naivete with women. The two female antagonists are initially anonymous to each other. Insane wife Lucia first spots Pepa placing a message on the door of their apartment. Lucia removes the message and throws it into the garbage can, while Pepa is secretly observing her act. Rest assured that this piece of paper would turn up later in the plot.
Though belonging to a different social class, Pepa, just like Gloria in “What Have I Done,” is distraught and depressed to the point of contemplating suicide (emphasis on contemplating). Sitting down, Pepa prepares a batch of gazpacho laced with barbiturates, which is meant for Ivan. In close-up, Pepa is observed cutting the hot-red and ripe tomatoes with a sharp knife, cutting herself in the process. In a moment of revelation, she takes one pill for herself, and dumps the rest of package into the uniquely Spanish drink. Assuming a life of its own, the gazpacho then becomes a key to some strange, unexpected events. Since “Women on the Verge” is structured as a farce, it is anticipated that all the “wrong” individuals—but Ivan–would drink the gazpacho, and that it would feature prominently in the plot, as it does.
Looking for a change, Pepa puts her apartment up for rent. Let the parade begin: Soon, all kinds of bizarre people start showing up at the luxurious flat. When she is around, Pepa functions as the hostess, at one point even entertaining two local policemen. Not surprisingly, the cops prove stupid and ineffectual, drinking the gazpacho and falling asleep, when they are most needed. When Pepa is not around, which is half of the time, other guests assume the role of hosts with varying degrees of success. The bell rings and the door is opened and closed with frequent regularity, as is the norm of the bedroom farce genre.
Flushed with bright lights and cartoonish hues, in what is clearly homage to Frank Tashlin’s visual strategy. The hot color palette, dominated by red and pink, accentuates the fast-paced events, from the opening credits to the closing frames.
Pepa’s penthouse and its large terrace are introduced as dawn descends on Madrid, barely defeating the city’s heavy pollution. Though an urban dweller, Pepa has fulfilled her desire to live in the country, so to speak. She has palm trees with birds, a little yard with hens, which refuse to “behave” when Pepa talks to them, a cock that crows, and rabbits. Every element of this “urban farm is designed with cheerfully perverse taste that’s slightly kitschy but not offensive. Pepa enjoys watering her plants and trees with a long hose, feeding her family of animals, socializing with them on the rare occasion that she’’s alone, and other routines.
Almodovar’s description of the set illustrates his theory of happiness, his utopian manifesto: “Society has now adapted itself to individuals, and all their social and professional needs have been met.” For him, the most significant human goal is to be happy–or unhappy–with the person you love. Love is sacred value, and the highest goal in life.
Like the dichotomies in the narrative, Pepa’s space is defined by a series of binary oppositions: Country and city, upper and lower class, men and women, husband and wives, husbands and sons, spouses and mistresses, older and younger femmes, authority figures and ordinary civilians.
The movie belongs to a genre described by Almodovar as “Alta Comedia,” or “high comedy,” defined as a “comedy of manners characterized by anti-naturalism: The sets are deliberately artificial, the performances and dialogues excessively rapid, and the deepest human ambitions treated in an abstract, almost synthetic manner.” “I am sick of being good,” Pepa says while putting the sleeping pills into her gazpacho as a trap for Ivan. (Gena Davis’ repressed and abused housewife would use a similar phrase, “I am tired of being sedate,” in the 1998 “Thelma and Louise,” directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Kourie).
In the opening sequence, a voice-over is heard accompanying a black-and white scene in which an older man is surrounded by a dozen women. When the camera pulls back, we realized it’s Pepa’s voice narrating a monochromatic dream/nightmare, which reflects her anxieties over Ivan’s betrayals. The women in the dream, clad in different dresses, walk toward Ivan, noticed or unnoticed by him, in a parade that recalls sequences in Fellini’s “81/2,” made in 1961 and also shot in black-and white. More significantly, the black-and-white dream parallels and would reaffirm the reality of Pepa’s life, albeit in color.
Later, lighting a cigarette, Pepa sets her bed aflame by accident. Staring into the flames, she seems strangely excited, even thrilled by the sight, dreaming of a bigger apocalypse. However, snapping out of her fantasy, Pepa throws her cigarette into the fire and then immediately goes for the hose. Eccentric and crazy as Pepa is, she is not stupid. Almodovar’s women can be dreamy and losers, but only for a while—and up to a point. Eventually, they all get up on their solid feet and their sexy high heels (the title of Almodovar’s 1991 picture).
It is noteworthy, that Pepa is first seen passive, asleep. The ensuing tale is about waking-up, getting in touch with one’s feeling by gaining self-consciousness. Almodovar’s femmes may be flighty, spontaneous, tempestuous, and driven to momentary madness, but ultimately, they are pragmatic and sane, motivated by common sense rather than rational intellect, encouraged and fueled by a newly-formed sense of female community.
Please read Part Two