Almodóvar's Breakdown of a Nervous Breakdown
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
American screwball comedies, stage dramas and soap operas, kitschy vibes and artsy themes of feminism and individualism. Chuck these ingredients into a blender and you get the luscious red concoction of Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios. Women on the Verge of a nervous breakdown is Spanish director, Pedro Almodóvar’s first international success that follows a middle-aged dubbing artist, Pepa (Carmen Maura), who has recently separated from her lover, Ivan. Whilst dealing with heartbreak and trying to reach her ex-boyfriend in vain, she is thrown into a chaotic series of events that she must resolve in order to save her friends from the hilariously dangerous situations that they find themselves in. Thoroughly entertaining and insinuatingly seductive, this melodramatic mayhem brought Pedro Almodóvar on the verge of winning an Oscar.
Almodóvar plays expertly with the illusory effects of his medium, with the clear façade of Pepa’s building and the view from her balcony. The obvious artifice of the theatrical stage (on which the film was shot), the exaggerated explosion of colours and an eccentric fashion sense make for a unique mise en scene that is clearly telling of the director. He keeps up the farce by peppering the narrative with unrealistic coincidences. The scheming plot in which spiked gazpacho is served to the entire party assembled at Pepa’s apartment and the insane, murderous ex-wife provide a histrionic pitch reminiscent of soap operas.
“Colour idealises an object and gives it an artificial value I like. I believe this artifice in the objects, the walls, the décor, the clothes…that reveals and singles out the characters in my films. It also completely isolates what interests me the most in my films: the story itself and the characters’ emotions.” – Pedro Almodovar, 1992.
At the same time, he uses cinema to mirror real life. Pepa is famous for playing a killer’s mother on TV. We are shown a scene where she helps hide her “son’s” crime, confidently lying through her teeth when the police arrive at her house. When faced with a similar scenario towards the end of the movie, she effortlessly denies her friend’s crime to the authorities. Pepa dubs for a film in which a priest warns a newly-wed to never trust men. Ironically, the naïve bride is played by Pepa’s friend, Candela and it is hilariously foreshadowing of both their predicaments. It is no coincidence that Ivan’s sweet-talking voice is the same that he uses in his profession. It is deeply earnest and sincere, unlike its bearer.
Women on the Verge is based on The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau, in which the lead desperately tries to regain the affections of her former lover, through a series of phone calls. Almodóvar turns the narrative around, having his characters find control of their lives at the end of all madness. Despite the tumultuous whirlwind of problems brought on by the men in their lives, these women are able to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground (Ivan’s ex-wife excluded, unfortunately). They wallow, they weep, they swoon and faint; they set their houses on fire and get duped by Shi’ite terrorists; but in the end, they stand. Far from flawless, they are impulsive, angry, heartbroken and insecure. Their resilience and gumption are an object of admiration and intrigue to the director. “Women are difficult to understand” is a phrase carelessly thrown around, but in a sort of role reversal, it is the men in this movie who take the sudden and irrational steps. There is a rationale behind the way the women behave and an empathetic understanding of their emotional outbursts. Desperation is a good colour on Almodóvar’s heroines, who wear their vulnerability with style. The multitudes of their personality and sexuality find an outlet in bold cabana stripes, polka dots, bouffant wigs, expressive eyelashes and the unabashed reds of rouge and lipstick.
While the protagonist of The Human Voice has a complete breakdown, Pepa is on its verge and we are simply loving the view.