Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The women here are no less melodramatic or filled with presence, but Almodóvar's affection is plain even without the lovely dedication he makes at the end.
The opening shots, of tilts and tracks over medical equipment giving a few final, artificial breaths to the doomed, do not so much set a tone for the film as get Almodóvar's usual darkness out of his system. Whatever one might want to read into the machinery falsely keeping flesh alive or a broader cold machination underneath the red-blooded melodrama to come soon dissolves as nothing more than a setup for a swift emotional payoff: these shots merely establish the initial setting of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse in Madrid in charge of overseeing organ transplants. Almodóvar establishes her here so that when her teenage writer son, Esteban, dies on his birthday chasing an actress' autograph, he can immediately place her in the position she had to place so many others, of being sorry for he rloss but needing to act fast. I did say this wasn't the usual Almodóvar black comedy, right?
Yes indeed, for as the rest of the film settles into Manuela's search for closure and meaning, from which one of the director's most graceful visions emerges. This is as true in the early stages of Manuela's grief—in which she literally follows her son's heart in its new host to be close to him—as when the mother heads into strange territory and links up with her old transsexual friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), two actresses, and a nun, Rosa (Penélope Cruz), pregnant by Manuela's her AIDS-stricken, transvestite, former lover (Toni Cánto). This carnival of unorthodox types is treated not with scorn or derision but the same care and love that Manuela receives as a devastated mom.
The characters' lives entwine, as do their roles. Manuela, the real mother who has suffered a loss, forms an instant bond with Huma (Marisa Paredes), the actress for whom her son died, as the actress who plays Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire acts out a surrogate maternal care for the troupe's Stella, Nina (Candela Peña), a drug addict and Huma's lover. Before the actress even figures out who Manuela is, the two communicate such a strong, unspoken understanding that they set out together on the streets of Barcelona to look for Nina. Later, when Nina disappears yet again, Manuela acts as her understudy, the real mother helping the stage mother and then pretending to be a mother to play Stella. By fluidly moving through these cubby holes of sexual and parental identity, Manuela breaks out of confining roles that weigh on them all, including the men living as women. Agrado feels body image pressure, remarking that she must keep her figure as she guiltily enjoys Manuela's cooking. Later, she explains why she has not yet had her penis removed by way of the absurd specificity of her profession's demands. "The clients like us pneumatic and well-hung," she says, referencing both her avalanche of surgeries and the part of her original anatomy she must retain despite all appearances to the contrary.
All this madness stacks on top of each other with Almodóvar's typical use of color-saturated frames and telenovela emoting, yet I can think of no other film in his canon that offers so many moments of humanity for his characters. Agrado leads a frank, vulgar discussion of sex among the women as Huma sits with her regal, actorly countenance in seeming disapproval. But when the subject turns to oral sex, she suddenly breaks in with the statement, "It's been ages since I sucked a cock," which she says with the sort of wistfulness normally reserved for the want of a favorite meal not had since adolescence. Rosa has a moment of searing melodramatic heartbreak: on her way to the hospital to give birth, Rosa sees her Alzheimer's-stricken father and his dog. The dog recognizes her, the father does not. A total diversion of a scene, this interlude nevertheless devastates for the detached, unknowing pleasantries the father offers to the woman as he calls his dog, as well as the daughter's willingness to play along, knowing full well a correction would be instantly forgotten. But among these moments of humor and sorrow, there is also triumph, especially when Agrado makes up for a canceled performance of the acting troupe by launching into a spontaneous one-woman show. She admits to her various surgeries before a quickly enraptured crowd and mines her confessions for self-effacing humor and empowerment to raucous hoots and applause.
The various maternal and sexual roles of the women suggest that Almodóvar views gender as a social construct with defined behavior patterns. This would also explain why he does not hesitate to include Agrado and Manuela's transvestite ex-lover, Lola (Toni Cantó) among the film's women. Lola does not appear until the final act of the movie, yet Almodóvar invests much of the ending warmth and sadness in the character. Dying of AIDS, Lola only wants to live long enough to see the son he made with Rosa and is stunned with grief when he learns of the son he never got to meet. Ironically, Lola, the only outwardly male character in the film, is the one who seems most wronged, doomed by disease and denied something for his sexual identity. Yet Lola also helps bring about the hope of the movie, inadvertently naming his second child after his first and implanting the notion of rebirth and a stronger generation, literalized through heightened biological immunity but suggestive of a better tomorrow. That optimism is as touching as Almodóvar's fond, sweeping dedication of the film to his favorite actresses, to all women, and to all men who become women. Such a tribute is almost to be expecting from this, Almodóvar's most giving film.