Usher in the New Year and the term with Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s comedic masterpiece, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
The dark dramedy catapulted Almodóvar into widespread success following its international release in 1988, grossing nearly $17 million worldwide on a budget of $700,000. Previously infamous for his more idiosyncratic and scandalous films, Almodóvar’s Women is, by contrast, disarmingly charismatic.
Protagonist Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) is a voiceover actress who dubs foreign films alongside her longtime (married) lover, Ivan (Fernando Guillén). In a bland voicemail, Ivan breaks up with Pepa, citing his own desire to never see her unhappy and requests she pack his things into a suitcase.
Pepa lovingly crafts a fresh gazpacho with vegetables from her garden and blends it with a handful of sleeping pills, declaring: “I’m sick of being good.” She then calmly sets her bed on fire, wholly ablaze, and puts it out with a garden hose.
Meanwhile, Pepa’s friend Candela (María Barranco) is frantic because the man she had been seeing turned out to be a Shiite terrorist about to hijack a flight to Stockholm. She seeks refuge with Pepa, terrified the police will think she was involved.
Mix in Ivan’s gun-toting, disturbed wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), and you have a crazy cocktail. After being released from a mental institution, convinced that Ivan is still seeing Pepa behind her back, Lucia reveals that she only faked sanity so she could get out and kill Ivan.
Women exists in an alternate reality in which coincidences are limitless and absurdity is commonplace. Case in point, actress Pepa appears in a laundry detergent commercial as the proud mother of a serial killer who washes her son’s bloodstained clothes so white that even forensics can’t link him to his crimes.
Though certainly farcical and outspoken, it also has moments of unexpected poignancy. As the men around them show their varied weaknesses, the women stand tall and refuse to be victims of their circumstances. Their characters are well-developed and manage to be both disparate and totally united.
Antonio Banderas has a role as Lucia and Ivan’s stuttering son, as he apartment shops with his stuck-up fiancée, Marisa (Rossy de Palma). Young Banderas is not to be missed, if only for his funky ’80s do.
Performances are strong throughout the ensemble cast, but Maura can’t help but outshine everyone. As Pepa, her weakness is short-lived and she rises from the ashes (of her bed) with dignity to show her ex who’s really going to save the day.
Maura’s performance lends honesty, tenderness and realistic human characteristics to Pepa, who might otherwise come off as a one-dimensional 1980s character constantly clad in polka dots.
Prior to the release of Women, Maura had starred in five Almodóvar films and was well-known as one of his go-to leading ladies. However, the onscreen chaos bled offscreen and the tension led to a 17-year lapse in collaboration, until 2006’s Volver.
To Almodóvar fans who have seen his 2009 film Broken Embraces, some scenes may look familiar; Embraces is about a director-actress relationship during the filming of her breakthrough role. Though starring Penelope Cruz, the role is about Pepa in Women. Never has a scene of a woman chopping tomatoes seemed so eloquent and heart-wrenching.
Winner of five Goya awards and an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, there’s not much to complain about in Women. It is a film still so culturally relevant that 22 years after its initial release it was reworked as a Broadway musical starring Patti LuPone.
Aside from occasionally lagging in pace, it is snappy, satirical and visually luscious and vibrant. From Pepa’s lively ’80s getups to her expansive terrace garden, colors abound. It’s playful and nuanced in ways that perhaps only Almodóvar is capable of pulling off, and not to be missed on the big screen in stunning 35mm quality.