"I'm too hurt to be clear, concise and fair."
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is Almodovar's most jovial and playful film. The story of a wife desperately in search of her husband, it jumps across social structures and toys with all manner of female anxiety about the one thing that seems to escape their understanding: men.
It's not that I, personally, find men difficult to understand, but then I've never really had the need or desire to put much thought into it. The quartet of women who are trapped in Women don't have that luxury; the whims of the male sex are forcing them into dangerous situations, and it's up to them to defuse them before they lose their minds.
Having said that, Women is a light, wafer-thin comedy. Almodovar approaches this material with a maniacal sense of glee and torment, putting his women through the ringer and seeing just what they're made out of.
Pepa: On The Verge
"You can't trust any man."
"Not even my husband?"
The film's narrative thrust come from the actions of Pepa (Carmen Maura), a famous television actress. The TV show she stars in has her playing the mother of a savage serial killer, and the weirdness of that scenario blends into the rest of her life.
She's driven by the urge to discover what's happening to her boyfriend, Ivan. After a brief black and white introduction that hints to us that he's a rather smooth ladies man, we get to follow Pepa around as she tries to decode the messages he keeps leaving on her answering machine. "It's not you, but I gotta go," he infers.
Pepa spends the film chasing every lead on him she can find. His disappearance to her isn't surprising-- their relationship had been rocky recently-- but she need some sense of closure and an answer for what, or who, has put a wedge between them. This journey takes her across the city of Madrid in two hectic days.
Maura, who played the over-the-top Tina in Law of Desire, has an understandably more sensible aura here. She's the glue of the picture, and her hysterics, from setting a bed on fire to spiking some gazpacho with sleeping pills, never verge into being totally disconnected from her reality.
In fact, it's impressive that Almodovar can create Pepa with such ferocity and inner turmoil and not make her appearing to be a total nutter. Then, that could also because Pepa meets a character whose insanity makes her nervous breakdown look like a sneezing fit.
Lucia: Over the Line
If Pepa is the woman contemplating the drastic, Lucía (Julieta Serrano) is the one who has already jumped off the building. She's Ivan's former lover from a decade back and has just been released from the mental institution.
She barks at people with an authoritarian stance, including trying to dominate her sweetly meek son Carlos (Antonio Banderas). Him and his fiancee Marisa (Rossy de Palma) are out looking for a new place considering his mother's wild mood swings since she, too, has found that Ivan has disappeared.
Lucía is one of those great characters who is completely mad and knows it. Those around her take a bit to catch on since she's so unabashedly confident and carefully presented, but once they do they quickly know to get out of her way. Driven insane with jealousy, she hatches a plan to end Ivan.
Pepa, in the meantime, begins to connect with Carlos. Seeing a lot of Ivan in Carlos, she begins to dote upon the young man. Marisa, snooping around in Pepa's apartment, makes the mistake of trying some of the spiked gazpacho and knocking herself out of commission. That leaves Carlos open to meet the much nicer but also rather on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown, Candela (María Barranco).
Candela: Caught in the Middle
"Men keep taking advantage of me. I always realize it when it's too late. Look how the Arab world treated me. I sure didn't deserve that."
The woman who's most literally getting screwed by men is poor Candela. After meeting a Arab and spending a passionate weekend with him, she finds him showing up at her door with some cohorts-- a terrorist cell that's planning on blowing up a flight that evening.
Stuck between going to the police and being terrified that she'll be accused of aiding them, she goes to Pepa and meets Carlos. He's instantly smitten with her, and tries to help her out by calling the police for her. This only adds the the complications, and Candela decides to make things easier by killing herself. She attempts to jump out of Pepa's penthouse, but Carlos saves her. With Marisa out thanks to gazpacho related issues, they soon begin to fall in love.
Across the Precipice
Ana: "I'm fed up. I'm gonna get myself some quick cash, buy myself his bike and split. With a bike, who needs a man?"
Pepa: "Learning mechanics is easier than learning male psychology. You can figure out a bike, but you can never figure out a man."
Almodovar, always one for spelling out his movies, does so in just a few shots near the middle of the film. Pepa, camped out in front of Lucia's home during her search for Ivan, begins to peek into the lives of those that live in the building. In one window, a woman in her underwear dances, gleefully and with a hint of tantalization, in front of an unseen person. She's obviously enjoying showing off both her body. Pepa smiles and then notices on a balcony a few rooms away a man crying into his hands, tenderly. Pepa frowns.
There's no narrative link between these two scenes besides Pepa's reaction, but they illustrate exactly the underlying issues that none of these characters understand: even when I give a man everything he wants, why is he still unfulfilled?
Women may not answer that, but it finds satisfaction for Pepa, Candela, and even Lucia to an extent. Candela is the only woman in the film who manages to fall in love, and stands between the extreme reactions that Lucia and Pepa represent.
The terrorists that she attempts to stop, Ivan's secret affair, and Lucia's total meltdown climax in a scuffle at the airport and a series of revelations that show that, if men are indeed unfathomable cowards, that it's up to the women to be strong. The film manages a rather touching coda where Pepa and Marisa commiserate and speculate on their futures.
For Almodovar, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown became his breakout hit. It's not as tangled and crazy as some of his previous and future works but it deftly manages complicated women characters who create a bond of friendship from the cruelties of men while remaining undeniably fun and charming. If you need an intro into Almodovar's world, you can't do much better than this.
P.S. -- There was actually a Women on the Verge musical that was made for Broadway a few years ago. As in last year. It looks nice, but some of the music is pretty bad. A preview: