By 1982, Spain had become a democracy ushering in a new era of personal and artistic freedom following Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s 36-year dictatorship. One of the most exciting filmmakers to appear in this new era was Pedro Almodóvar, who launched his own production company in 1986 and two years later released this uproarious send-up of romantic melodrama. The film focused themes and directorial trademarks he had been developing over the past decade and put him on the map internationally. It also helped launch leading man Antonio Banderas’ international career.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown focuses on Pepa (Carmen Maura), an actress who’s doing a poor job coping with the end of her affair with fellow actor Iván (Fernando Guillén). She’s already set their bed on fire and thrown her telephone out the window. But before she can adjust further, her space is invaded by unwanted guests: Ivan’s ex-wife (Julieta Serrano), her son by him (Banderas), his snooty fiancée (Rossy de Palma) and Pepa’s best friend (María Barranco), who’s just discovered her latest amor has been using her apartment as a meeting place for terrorists. Throw in a couple of police officers, a therapist (Kiti Mánver) with a secret of her own and a bowl full of gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills and the stage is set for an uproarious comedy with a psycho-sexual twist.
One of the most distinctive elements of Almodóvar’s films is his use of a rotating stock company. By 1988, this group included Banderas, Maura, Serrano, de Palma, Mánver and Chus Lampreave, who plays the hyper-religious building superintendent. In later films, Penelope Cruz, Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes and Cecilia Roth would join his circle. His films are also marked by bold colors, unusual camera angles and references to other films he loves. As Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opens, Maura and Guillén are dubbing the voices for Nicholas Ray’s feminist Western Johnny Guitar (1954), and the film itself is modeled on the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Thematically, he depicts the creation of new, non-traditional families in place of the biological families sanctioned by the Catholic Church. He routinely mocks Catholicism and presents characters who defy long-standing social norms by taking drugs and exploring their sexuality. Bad taste is also a hallmark of his films, which revel in rude behavior, kitsch and camp. Almodóvar rarely judges his characters’ transgressions, though he is quick to point out the absurdity of their behavior, laughing affectionately at people living without logic or self-control.
Critics have seen Almodóvar’s approach to filmmaking as a direct reaction to the repressive dictatorship in which he grew up during the last years of Franco’s reign. He was among the generation of artists who came into prominence as democracy was rising in Spain, identifying with the young people who flocked to the newly liberated Madrid and turned it into a major party city. From his earliest films — including Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980), Dark Habits (1983), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Matador (1986) and Law of Desire (1987) — he took advantage of the new permissiveness in Spanish society to present a world in which homosexuality, cross-dressing, drug use and rampant emotionalism are the tools of melodramas so over the top they often tip over into farce.
By the time he released Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he was already a cultural hero in Spain. His premieres were social events and his embrace of pop culture had even revolutionized fashion there, with young women imitating the mini-skirts and dramatic makeup worn by many of his leading ladies. The film was a huge hit in Spain, where it became that country’s highest-grossing film to that time. It won Goya Awards (Spain’s version of the Oscars) for Best Picture, Actress (Maura), Supporting Actress (Barranco), Screenplay and Editing. It also won European Film Awards for Best Actress and Best Young Film and the Golden Osella for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival.
It was equally successful in the U.S., where it became the top-grossing Spanish film to that time after opening the 26th New York Film Festival. Almodóvar’s earlier films had played in the U.S. and were beginning to win a group of admirers for their off-beat humor. Among the most notable was Pauline Kael, who referred to him as “the most original pop writer-director of the eighties, he’s Godard with a human face — a happy face.” She also dubbed Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown “one of the jauntiest of all war-of-the-sexes comedies” (Pauline Kael, Movie Love). It was nominated for the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and won that award from the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review.
The film continues to be one of his most popular. Though Almodóvar’s work has proven highly exportable to other countries, he has consistently rebuffed offers to direct films in the U.S. Actor-director Richard Benjamin optioned the rights to an American remake, originally planned to star Jane Fonda in Maura’s role and Benjamin’s wife, Paula Prentiss, in Serrano’s. The film was never made. A musical version with book by Jeffrey Lane and a score by David Yazbek played 69 performances on Broadway. The cast included Sherie Rene Scott as Pepa, Patti LuPone as Lucia, Brian Stokes Michell as Ivan, Laura Benanti as Candela and Danny Burstein as the Taxi Driver.
Producer: Pedro Almodóvar, Agustin Almodóvar
Director-Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine
Score: Bernardo Bonezzi
Cast: Carmen Maura (Pepa), Antonio Banderas (Carlos), Julieta Serrano (Lucía), María Barranco (Candela), Rossy de Palma (Marisa), Kiti Mánver (Paulina Morales), Guillermo Montesinos (Taxista), Chus Lampreave (Portera Testiga de Jehová), Fernando Guillén (Iván)
By Frank Miller