Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown (1988): Part Two

Please read Part one

The film’s first half has an unsettled rhythm, defined by sudden shifts in the plot’s large number of locales and personas; there are at least ten speaking characters all fully developed. Almodovar has acknowledged that for his tale’s absurdities he has tried to adopt the frantic pace of zany Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.”

The aging Ivan and the younger (but not young) Pepa both work in the film industry. Pepa is doing some commercials (one about detergent is seen), but her main job is dubbing. Ivan and Pepa offer the Spanish voices for the roles of Sterling Hayden and Joan Crawford, respectively, in Nicholas Ray’s 1954 cult Western “Johnny Guitar,” which Almodovar, like many other cinephiles, greatly admires.

The dubbing sequences are as crucial as the movie chosen for them to dub. Each addresses only the microphone and the screen—there is lack of reciprocity as they are not physically present at the same time. Moreover, the contents of the dialogue offers an ironic commentary on their “relationship,” when Hayden’s Johnnie is begging Crawford’s Vienna “to deceive” him, namely, to tell him that she loves him as much as he loves her. This phrase is ironic in two significant ways. First, Hayden has almost always played “macho” roles, and “Johnny Guitar” is the exception to the norm, seeing him in a more vulnerable role. Second, In “Womenon the Verge,” it’s the female, Pepa, who’s desperate to know whether Ivan loves her as much as she loves him—or loves her at all (Ivan plans to leave town for a vacation with the latest of his mistresses).

As the protagonist, Pepa is joined by or contrasted with half a dozen women. First, there is her weepy friend Candela (Maria Barranco), who seems to be wearing earrings in the shape of espresso machines. In her big scene, delivered while she is reduced to tears, Candela tells of her affair with a Shiite terrorist who had used her apartment as a meeting place. She now fears the police would arrest her as a crime accessory, perhaps even conspirator. Candella is seen, just like Pepa, packing the belongings of her (unseen) terrorist lover in a suitcase, which she buries in a public dampster. In contrast, Pepa’s suitcase with Ivan’s possessions and love letters goes from one hand to another, again obeying the rules of farcical comedies, though at the end, it also lands in a big public garbage can, conveniently retrieved by Ivan’’s current lover who’s sitting nearby in her own car.

The second contrast is offered by Marisa, played by the iconic star Rosy de Plama, known for her cubist face, her extraordinary long, crooked nose, which gives her a distinctive look. Dressed in sensual red, like several of the other women, Marisa first turns up at Pepa’s apartment with her boyfriend Carlos, who just happens to be Ivan’s son.

When Marisa, among others, drinks the gazpacho intended for Ivan, she falls into a sleep that induces a long, wet erotic dream in which she experiences her first orgasm ever. This is Almodovar’s satiric stab at men who brag about sexual prowess—here, it takes a surreal reverie for a virginal girl to have her first climax. Meanwhile, the virginal Carlos courts and caresses Candella, before falling asleep with the girl in his arms; the way he touches her breasts suggests he has never done it before.

Sex in Almodovar’s movies is dream-like and realistic, exciting and messy, fulfilling and dangerous. It’s an activity that should be carried out in complete abandonment and total immersion, to the exclusion of other interests and desires. However, as an all-encompassing act that is often humiliating in its obsessive pursuit, sex can be dangerous and risky to the point of death, as was seen in “Matador.”

Though Ivan offers the dramatic connection among the characters, he is only shown in brief glimpses, walking down the street, making a call out of a phone booth, hiding from his crazy wife, recording in a studio. Almodovar often reduces Ivan’s presence to a voice talking to a microphone in a close-up. An aging, dwindling Lothario, he is deliberately an underdeveloped character, a philandering husband blessed with an erotic voice that proves alluring to women. He is really fully seen, and given some dialogue, in the last sequence, set at the airport, and about to depart with yet another younger mistress.

In the preceding scene, there is a serio-comic confrontation between Pepa and Ivan’s wife, Lucia. Both are holding a glass of gazpacho, but knowing its contents, they refuse to drink it. Breaking the impasse, Lucia dumps the gazpacho on Pepa’s face and runs out. At a gun point, Lucia forces a punkish motorcyclist who happens to be outside to take her to the airport. Realizing the potential consequences, Pepa rushes out in a taxicab (the same one, driven by Almodovar) to the airport, and a chase scene with a shoot-out ensues in a mock satirical way to Hollywood’s notorious chase scenes.

At the terminal, just when Lucia is about to shoot Ivan, standing on line with his mistress, Pepa saves his life by pushing a luggage cart at the crazy wife before fainting herself. Spotting Pepa, now in the role of life-savior, Ivan rushes towards her, holding her in his arms while sheepishly apologizing for his behavior. But, it’s too late: Finally sober and in control of her emotions and actions, Pepa realizes that Ivan is really not worthy of her love

The discussion of this film began with analysis of Pepa’s space and should conclude by suggesting that while the penthouse is a fixed space, initially, it is not stable and doesn’t qualify as a home. For most of the story, the apartment is just a physical site that Pepa periodically leaves and returns to, only to leave again–always making sure that she’s dressed and made-up properly. Throughout the tale, Pepa’s space is visited or invaded by her amigas and strangers (the cops, the couple looking to rent it, Ivan’s wife). Crucial to Pepa’s journey of self-discovery is the realization that the penthouse is her real home, and as such, should function as a place of stability and happiness.

For every death in Almodovar’s films there’s birth, for every dissolved relationship, a new one is formed. In the last shot of “Women on the Verge,” all the invaders and guests–but one–have left. Pepa is joined by Marisa, and the two women have a toast to their new friendship. Both women have been deluded by relationships with men. There is no chemistry or meaningful rapport between Marisa and Carlos; they look more like siblings than lovers.

In celebrating female camaraderie, Almodovar reaffirms the endings of such classic Hollywood melodramas as “Old Acquaintance,” in which the initial rivals (Better Davis and Miriam Hopkins) have a drink in front of the fireplace, a close that openly gay director George Cukor has also chosen for the 1981 “Rich and Famous” (which turned out to be his very last feature), the loose remake of the 1941 Warner’s melodrama, showing Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset with a champagne glass in their hands, seated in front of the fireplace on new Year’s. (This denoument is referred to in the text of “The Flower of My Secret”).