Pedro Almodóvar makes telephones, a mambo taxi, and a burning mattress into delirious plot points and indelible images in his international breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Melding melodrama with screwball farce, this Academy Award–nominated black comedy secured the auteur’s place at the vanguard of modern Spanish cinema. Continuing Almodóvar’s exploration of the female psyche, the film tells the story of Pepa, an actor—played by the director’s frequent collaborator Carmen Maura—who resolves to kill herself with a batch of sleeping-pill-laced gazpacho after her lover leaves her. Fortunately, she is interrupted by a string of visitors, setting in motion a deliciously chaotic series of events. The filmmaker channeled inspiration by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk into his own unique vision, arriving at the irreverent sense of humor and vibrant visual sense that define his work today. With a sensational ensemble cast of early Almodóvar regulars that also includes Antonio Banderas and Rossy de Palma, this film shows an artist in total control of his craft.
Although he'd made several features beforehand and gained a little international attention for his prior two films, Matador and Law of Desire, his 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was the big breakout hit that secured Pedro Almodóvar's reputation as a major director on the worldwide stage. In addition to being a box office success both in its native Spain (the film's producer claims it was the most-seen movie in the country for two straight years) and the United States, it steamrolled through the Spanish Goya Awards and the Toronto International Film Festival, and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language prizes at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Oscars. Suddenly, Almodóvar was identified as the most vital voice in Spanish cinema. A young actor named Antonio Banderas benefited from the exposure as well.
That type of acclaim and reward might typically suggest a serious drama weighted heavily with important themes and existential angst. To the contrary, Women on the Verge is a very light and frothy relationship comedy about a group of female characters driven to hysteria by the men in their lives and their interactions with each other. Carmen Maura leads the cast as Pepa, a successful television actress whose personal life is imploding because she's convinced that her boyfriend, a fellow actor named Iván (Fernando Guillén), is planning to leave her for another woman. She has good reason to worry. Iván is an old-fashioned ladykiller with a history of treating his previous lovers poorly, and he's clearly dodging the many phone calls she obsessively makes to contact him. The more their paths just miss crossing (by Iván's design, of course), the more frantic and irrational Pepa becomes, to the point of planning a drastic and ill-conceived plot to prevent him from leaving town.
While she's preoccupied with that, Pepa is interrupted by her friend Candela (María Barranco), a flighty young woman who has just discovered that her own boyfriend is a criminal. She's less concerned about his actions than the fact that he lied to her about them, and she's terrified that the police will come to arrest her for unwittingly harboring him. Into the middle of these two crises walk Iván's son, Carlos (a very young and nerdy Banderas), and his stuck-up fiancée (Rossy de Palma). As if all that weren't complicated enough, Carlos' deranged mother (Julieta Serrano) somehow proves to be even more obsessed with Iván than Pepa is, and far more dangerous.
As all of these characters and their individual storylines swirl around and bounce off one another, the film's plot grows increasingly crazier and more melodramatic until hitting its outrageous climax. Throughout, Almodóvar's direction draws from several very disparate influences, including classic Hollywood screwball comedies, Douglas Sirk's Technicolor women's pictures of the 1950s, and a touch of surrealism by way of Fellini. The manner in which he combines these is his own peculiar stew, forming a vibrant and rambunctious vision of a post-Franco Spain filled with characters almost as colorful as their surroundings. His fetishistic attention to detail in the wardrobe and production design nearly hits Wes Anderson levels a decade ahead of that filmmaker's emergence, but in the service of a story that thrives on chaos and delirium.
From Fellini, Almodóvar takes a fondness for casting interesting faces that don't necessarily conform to the usual standards of movie star beauty and glamour. Carmen Maura is a lovely woman and an excellent actress, but her jutting jaw wouldn't get past the door at a Hollywood casting call. María Barranco's features are just a little off, with a head slightly too small for her body and teeth too big for her mouth. And no disrespect to the actress intended, but Rossy de Palma has a face that many have described as Picasso-esque. Almodóvar doesn't treat any of them as weirdos or curiosities. I think he genuinely sees them all as beautiful, and he styles them and photographs them accordingly, as objects of attraction and desire. His work with her in this movie and others (she's a frequent collaborator) propelled de Palma to a career as a model and fashion icon.
Women on the Verge is something of a statement piece for Pedro Almodóvar that confidently established him as an exciting talent to watch. For all that, it's still an early, formative work in the filmmaker's career. It's an entertaining but ultimately minor effort from an artist who would go onto to better things as he developed and refined his artistic voice.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown enters the Criterion Collection as spine #855, under license from Sony Pictures Classics. This marks Criterion's second collaboration with director Pedro Almodóvar, following a Blu-ray edition of his 1990 comedy Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! a few years ago. A corresponding DVD edition is available separately.
The disc comes packaged in one of the distributor's clear keepcases, which also contains a booklet with an essay about the movie. The disc has a plain static menu displaying the same artwork as the outside of the case – a Lichtenstein-inspired Pop Art design. The current video disc Pop Art fad has long since worn out its welcome, but this one at least feels appropriate to the movie's content. In addition to being boring, the menu is also poorly designed with confusing menu highlight colors that make it unclear which selection has been chosen.
For a modestly-budgeted Spanish film from the 1980s, the Criterion Blu-ray looks very nice indeed. According to the liner notes in the accompanying booklet, the video transfer was supervised and approved by Pedro Almodóvar, and was sourced from a recent 2k film scan of the original camera negative. Don't be troubled by the lack of 4k. The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode has a strong, often excellent amount of detail and texture.
Presented in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the image is mildly grainy but not excessively so. In comparison to prior DVDs, the film elements have been significantly cleansed of dirt and age-related damage. The contrast range is very natural and filmic. Almodóvar is famous for his use of expressive, even garish colors, and they look great as well.
The Blu-ray provides two lossless soundtrack options, either DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 or 5.1. Both contain only the film's original Spanish-language dialogue, with optional English subtitles. As is standard practice for the label, Criterion has not bothered with any dubs.
When it played in theaters in 1988, the soundtrack for Women on the Verge was mixed in Ultra Stereo, a matrixed surround format similar to (and compatible with) Dolby Stereo. Criterion's booklet liner notes refer only to remastering and digital restoration performed on the 2.0 track, while the back of the case art includes a cursory mention of an "alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack" without any further details. From what I can tell, the 5.1 mix was likely a carryover from an old Sony DVD release. My assumption is that Criterion probably put most of its attention into the 2.0 track and only offers the other one for the sake of thoroughness.
The 2.0 mix has a bright character with music that's a little harsh. However, it also sounds fuller and richer than the 5.1 version, which is flat in comparison. Neither has terribly much surround activity or bass. For some reason, the music during the opening credits feels pulled toward the left side of the screen in the 5.1 track. It's better centered in 2.0.
Both audio options are listenable. My preference was for the 2.0 track.
Prior home video editions of Women on the Verge were bereft of bonus features. For the new DVD and Blu-ray, Criterion conducted several new interviews in 2016.
His breakout hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one of the most important movies in Pedro Almodóvar's career, though not necessarily his best. The fact that Criterion was able to license it from Sony gives me hope that perhaps his later masterworks All About My Mother and Talk to Her might come to the Collection in the future.
The Blu-ray is a fine-looking disc that includes some interesting interviews. It's a worthy purchase for Almodóvar's fans or those interested to check out his work. While the comedy may ultimately be slight, it's still a fun and hilarious introduction to the director's oeuvre.