Thursday, December 15, 2011

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

Pedro Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one of the wildest farces in the lurid melodramatist's oeuvre, even as it is also one of the least shocking. The director's pet narrative tics of rape and other forms of abuse are nowhere to be found, with the worst cruelty inflicted by a male upon the female protagonist that of dumping her via answering machine. Even when sexual relations with a terrorist come into play, it is solely in terms of pure comedy, an absurd twist that adds just one more damn hurdle in the heroine's desire to kill herself. Some days you just can't win.

Only a director with a filmography like Almodóvar's could put this material into a film and have it be the one movie of his that isn't a black comedy. Instead, Women is a lighthearted take on his usual gender politics, where the women are hysterical, overwrought and dangerous, but still more appetizing than the men, who are lustful and cowardly and afraid to show the emotions that the women personify. But at the end of every crying jag over deceitful or departing lovers is the realization that they were too good for those assholes anyway, a Lifetime movie message made effervescent and utterly, joyously insane by Almodóvar's singular postmodernization of kitsch.

The opening credits, of vibrant fashion mag cut-ups arranged into collages of fetishized body parts at advertised products, looks like someone took Godard's Une femme mariée and poured paint on it, a montage of commentary as suggestive as it is hilariously dispensable to the story to follow. Almodóvar moves from these credits to a woman, Pepa (early Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura), coming out of her Valium-induced slumber. Her lover, Iván, a smooth-talking lothario, revealed his true colors by breaking up with Pepa by answering machine—not even a damn phone call—but this pathetic move cannot make Pepa see what a horse's ass he is, and she calmly gets another refill of sleeping pills to dump into some fresh gazpacho as a last meal.

Before she can get around to the small matter of offing herself, however, Pepa must deal with a variety of mad distractions. First, her bed suddenly catches fire, which she finally puts out after impatiently watching the conflagration as if weighing her options. Then comes Candela, who irritates Pepa by leaving a series of frantic, clearly urgent messages that the woman instantly deletes in the hopes of getting to one left by Iván. When the poor friend finally just comes to Pepa's penthouse, she relates a story of sleeping with an Arab man who turned out to be a Shiite terrorist planning a hijacking. Petrified that police will consider her an accomplice, Candela is, if anything, more suicidal than Pepa, unwilling to even alert the authorities to a possible attack in order to avoid any suspicion. Finally, Iván's son from a previous relationship, Carlos (a young Antonio Banderas with a dorky '80s haircut), comes to look at the apartment that Pepa wants to sublet, allowing the protagonist to vent her sadness to a relative of her lover's. Carlos also brings along his fiancée, Marisa, a woman with the face of a Hapsburg and a snotty, spoiled attitude to match.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown steeps its absurdities in overblown color, with every object shaded in every conceivable hue save one that looks "normal." The apartment balcony is so overwhelmingly florid that it almost resembles the oneiric balcony at the start of Hausu, where the overlit and stylized porch is so candy-colored and bright that it repels instead of allures. Almodóvar loves to toy with perfectly framed inanities, such as the mobile set of a mambo-loving taxi driver, a garish explosion of trinkets and tastelessness that wouldn't be equalled until the glittering dollhouse of a cab at the start of The Darjeeling Limited. He also includes enough close-ups of high heels to make Buñuel proud. Or horny. Or both. Other delights are innumerable, but I have a particular soft spot for the gonzo TV ad for detergent framed as a mother cleaning the bloody clothes of her serial killer son, with detectives bursting in and standing back, impressed, at just how well the product eradicates potential evidence. I also love the occupations of Pepa and Iván, both voiceover artists who dub American films. Almodóvar shows them overdubbing Johnny Guitar a similarly gender-bending exercise in gaudy, brilliant melodrama. Later, their talents extend to the diegetic world, the voices of the two emanating from Carlos' mouth as he reads correspondence between them.

For a film about harboring terrorists, insane women, drugging cops and grieving lovers, the stakes are low, which makes the tizzies into which everyone works themselves so much funnier. Pepa isn't the only one of Iván's jilted lovers, and he even drove Carlos' mother Lucia (Julieta Serrano) mad. She goes completely unhinged at the end, leading to an uproarious chase scene of the dragon lady riding on a motorcycle firing wildly at that damn mambo cab, a close-up of her pancaked-pale face static with liberated craziness as her hair billows behind her is one of the most hysterically terrifying shots in cinema, and windswept look when she dismounts and hunts for Iván somehow makes the situation even funnier and scarier. After being put through hell, Pepa finally realizes she's too good for Iván at her moment of triumph, a feminine victory checked by the overwhelming desire it creates in the viewer to yell, "Now you get this?!" Equally true, if just as silly, is the smaller lesson learned with the coda, where Pepa returns home and has a chat with a much more pleasant Marisa about how sometimes, a nice nap can be as refreshing as a good screw.

1 comment:

  1. YES to everything here. I love Almodovar, and this is one of my favorites. He makes me proud to be named Pedro after years of hating it (thanks again, Napoleon Dynamite).