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WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Carmen Maura, Maria Barranco, Julieta Serrano, Antonio Banderas, Fernando Guillen
Director:  Pedro Almodovar
Audio:  Dolby 2 Channel Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Promotional Trailer
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  April 10, 2001

Film ****

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown marked my fist introduction to the cinematic world of Pedro Almodovar more than ten years ago.  It’s a funny, energetic and sexy comedy, filled with the director’s distinct touches.  He’s a filmmaker who intuitively understands that a young man telling the sad story of his childhood can be interesting, but if the beautiful woman he’s telling it to is undressing at the same time…well, that’s something different.

He loves the women in his films…at the very least, he’s fascinated by them, as are we, the audience.  In this picture, the women are a mix of strength and vulnerability, of passion and neurosis.  And like the pebble dropped on the snowcapped mountain that becomes enormous by picking up snow on the way down, their lives are spiraling out of control in wild, funny and unpredictable ways. 

Pepa (Maura) is an actress in Madrid.  As the film opens, we learn that her longtime married lover, Ivan (Guillen) is breaking up with her, but we don’t know the background yet.  Both work in voiceovers, and one terrific and well-constructed scene shows her listening to Ivan’s scripted words of love, as she adds the replies…she and Ivan are respectively dubbing Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Guitar into Spanish.

Problem is, she’s pregnant…and her attempts to get in touch with Ivan one last time to let him know result in a series of miscommunications that doesn’t help her state of mind.  Things grow even more complex with the arrival of unexpected visitors to her penthouse:  her hysterical friend Candela (Barranco) who may have caused an international incident by sleeping with a renowned terrorist (“I didn’t know where to go,” she sobs, “I couldn’t face my parents.  It’s bad enough that I became a model”), and a couple who arrive to sublet her place…the young man, Carlos (Banderas) turns out to be Ivan’s grown son that Pepa never knew about.  “I’m his father’s ex-lover,” she pleasantly introduces herself to his fiancée.

In the meantime, Ivan’s ex-wife, Lucia (Serrano), the only clinically unbalanced character in the bunch, is seeking revenge on Pepa.  If that doesn’t sound like an intriguing mix, throw in for good measure a mambo cab driver who also supplies a roving drug store on wheels, a burning bed, a broken-then-fixed-then-broken again phone, and a pitcher of gazpacho laced with barbiturates.  Trust me.

The comedy evolves from great characters to take on a life of its own.  There are plenty of missteps along the way involving slapstick, situations, and even the occasional spoof.  Watch Pepa’s commercial for Ecce Homo laundry detergent, for example…that one gets me every time.

Almodovar has created an energetic crowd pleaser of a comedy, with winning characters, outrageous scenarios, a sharp script and his ever-present touch of sex appeal.  This is a comic masterpiece, and one of the all time funniest.

Video ***

This is a good looking anamorphic transfer from MGM, one that thankfully maintains Almodovar’s expressive color schemes.  These colors are bright, vivid, and beautiful throughout, with no hints of distortion or bleeding.  Images are generally very sharp and clear, with no signs of compression, and only occasional tell-tale marks and debris on the print to indicate the film’s age.  Overall, though, a very satisfying effort.

Audio **

You have a choice of the original Spanish or English dubbed tracks (with appropriate subtitles, of course).  Both are 2-channel mono, and both are perfectly adequate, if not exemplary.  The Spanish track actually has a bit more fullness and range than the thinner sounding English counterpart.  Spoken words have good clarity throughout, as are the musical cues and occasional effects.

Features *

Only a video release promotional trailer.

Summary:

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown might be a mouthful to say, but it’s a film that digests easily.  No one who loves to laugh should pass up the chance to watch Pedro Almodovar’s comic masterpiece on DVD.