Pedro Almodovar understands how to get into the minds of female characters and draw out their specific traits, both as women and as distinct individuals coping with different states of duress within the exaggerated stories concocted by the filmmaker. This skill has shaped his contemporary work, stories that span from female matadors and single-mother nurses to doting ghosts floating between loved ones, into meaningful cinematic poetry that never shies away from reaching deeper into the characters' mental spaces. This isn't something that manifested or developed later in the director's career, though, as roughly a decade before earning widespread attention with All About My Mother and Talk to Her, he created a cluster of complex, engaging women who navigate the relationship chaos that take place in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn. Despite the overly screwy nature of how the situation plays out, hinged on hornball men and terrorist suspicions, Almodovar brings to life conflicted, modestly layered female personas, each resolving their own issues in varied ways.
A beautiful ode to the art of filmmaking and voice-over work at the beginning of the film also illustrates the charismatic, persuasive nature of voice-over actor Ivan's (Fernando Guillen) philandering personality. Pepa (Carmen Maura), a prominent actress who also does dub-recording work, has been caught in his spell for some time, though they've recently broken apart from one another, which sent Pepa into a depressive, sleeping-pill-infused state. She scrambles around to get in contact with Ivan, to discuss things before he takes a trip, while coping with a medical condition and contemplating the next stages in her life if this relationship falls through. During this, her friend, Candela (Maria Barranco), interrupts the search for Ivan with her own concerns about her romantic entanglement with a known terrorist, who's now on the run from authorities. Between hunting for Ivan, figuring out Candela's legal issues, and coping with a couple -- fiancees Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and Marisa (Rossy de Palma) -- interesting in subletting Pepa's apartment, the women gradually figure out what's best for them after the dust settles.
Along with his perspective on women, Pedro Almodovar has also latched onto a distinguishing use of color and vivaciousness in his films, seen in some of its rawest and most playful states in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn. Alongside close-up footage of circulating film stock, it begins with a black-and-white tracking shot of Ivan schmoozing down a line of stereotypical women representing different cultures and characterizations, accentuating both his fickle desires for the opposite sex as well as emphasizing the broad range of women who might be wooed by his smooth-talking persona. Inside the brightly-hued apartment and within exterior locations that include taxicabs and law offices, Almodovar captures and shapes the mood of the women on the receiving end of this masculine persuasion, matched with engagement of the senses with bountiful houseplants, a pitcher of spiked gazpacho, and the raging lapping of a fire. There's life an energy in every corner of Almodovar's craftsmanship, which he uses to deepen his evenhanded look at the women's inherently favorable and unfavorable traits.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn spreads its attention between a wide variety of people caught in the vacuum of romantic deceits -- other lovers like Lucia (Julieta Serrano), children, lawyers -- but the heart of the story lies in Pepa and the wide-eyed, deliberately stressed performance from Almodovar fixture Carmen Maura. The film's title points toward several women under duress, yet the others are largely responding to the chaos erupting around them, depicting scorned and rattled victims of their situations whom Almodovar doesn't elaborate upon as thoroughly as he could have; this, certainly, is intentional. Instead, the depths and moving parts of Pepa's mentality are on full display, revealed through her fluctuations of depression, frustration, and resolve in seeking out answers and getting into a better head-space. Carmen Maura's realization of the stages in Pepa's post-breakup state masterfully blend genuineness with amusing comedic exaggerations, capturing the ways in which she inelegantly pulls herself up by her bootstraps and resolves her feelings toward Ivan, reevaluating her living conditions in the process.
Whether it's the richness of examining Pepa's emotional state or the more outward, cursory attitudes of the supporting players, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn forms into a richly thematic glimpse at these personas, succeeding in its dramatic endeavors while Almodovar charms the audience with brisk, real conversations between them. The same can't really be said for the story evolving around them, though: in keeping the scale small and largely confined to the space of Pepa's apartment, Almodovar relies on a lot of circumstance and far-fetched happenings to move the story along, even for a movie with screwball-comedy inclinations. Certain touches may demonstrate cultural charm, such as a stranger raiding another stranger's fridge for (potentially spiked!) refreshments and a recurring, adoring taxi driver popping up to escort Pepa wherever she needs to go. However, the convenient rhythm of how they emerge from the story also distracts from some of Almodovar's more profound considerations, relying on a peculiar blend of situational and screwball black comedy also for significant narrative cues.
Almodovar may occasionally wobble while toeing the line of credibility with his humor in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn, but the emotional complexity of his writing always shakes things back awake and on the level with where he's headed. Here, he transforms what could be viewed as a skewed perspective on the wickedness of promiscuous men and the victimhood of their women into a mostly-balanced, layered glimpse at inner turmoil and self-realization, one that doesn't force its characters into tidy unrealistic states of catharsis at the end. An explosive finale filled with police investigators, mental patients, and piles of shattered glass and spilled gazpacho attempts to match its zaniness with convincing expressiveness, and while some of it does rely on craziness that's more than a little dubious in how it handles suspicions of infidelity and terrorism, Almodovar manages to tie it all up by staying determined with his vicarious point of view. The Spanish filmmaker has surely improved with his later representations of authentic women, but this early one shows he's always had a direct line there.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn show up on the Blu-ray format's doorstep as spine #855 from the Criterion Collection. Adorned with vivid graphical design on the cover artwork and disc design, it's a familiar package to those with experience of the label, contained inside the label's signature clear case. Inside, a Booklet has been included featuring textual information about the restoration and cast, as well as an essay from Elvira Lindo, "A Sweet New Style".
Video and Audio:
Look, I won't go so far as to say that Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn looks like it was shot on film yesterday, but, damn, does the clarity, contrast balance, and film integrity comes close to earning that compliment. This restoration comes from a fresh scan at 2K resolution from the film's original 35mm negative, conducted at Deluxe Madrid under the supervision of Pedro and Agustin Almodovar, framed at 1.85:1 and presented in a robust 1080p AVC encode. There are a lot of clever, stunning close-ups in this movie, both on people and on objects, and the amount of fine detail present every step of the way is breathtaking: embers of cigarettes, creases on lips, seeds in blended gazpacho, fine print at the bottom of a script page, even fine printed design on wallpaper at a distance. Skin tones, shades of green in plants, and are revelatory, consistently warm and supple no matter the lighting, but the vibrant shades of color in Almodovar's production and costume design steal the show, all of which are bright, solid, yet entirely within the cinematography's intentions. Contrast remains impeccable, never crushing out a single detail and accentuating the image's depth at every angle, and film grain has just the right amount of organic heft to it. This is a phenomenal presentation.
With such an impressive visual transfer and with this being such a subtle, dialogue-driven experience, it's tough to concentrate on the quality of the sound, which has also been remastered from the original magnetic track and further cleaned up by The Criterion Collection's range of restoration tools for this Spanish 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The age of the soundtrack can be discerned throughout, with sound effects and dialogue often having a slightly thinner, mildly metallic property to them befitting a low-budget film approaching its 30th anniversary. With that in mind, there's an awful lot of clarity and naturalness to the sound effects that compliments the transfer, from recordings on answering machines and the dicing of tomatoes to crashed glass and the popping of a pile of ignited matches. The music fluctuates from vintage recordings to clear ‘80s rhythms, both of which are as clear or aged as the track requires. Dialogue is sharp and well enunciated, despite the frequent and unavoidable twang of age. In short, this isn't quite the same caliber of restoration as the visuals, but it's satisfying and full-bodied where needed.
Pedro Almodovar (16:53, 16x9 HD) is always good for an in-depth, scholarly chat about his creations, and this interview recorded in 2016 for The Criterion Collection doesn't break from that tradition. He begins this over fifteen-minute discussion by elaborating upon the intentions and tone of this early film of his, chatting about its roots in American screwball comedies and the peculiarly idyllic rhythm of how things play out in his colorful environment. He also delves into how he "breaks the rules" with certain photographic and tonal techniques inside the space of the film's comedy, as well as the use of clothes and color and how they transcend the nature of artifice. Carmen Maura (19:07, 16x9 HD) also recorded an interview in Madrid, but it's of a different nature than her director's piece: she gets very personal very quickly, discussing acting as, essentially, her one talent, the intimacy of her kinship with Almodovar while working together, the effortlessness of her embracing different roles, and the beauty of solitude.
Agustin Almodovar (16:12, 16x9 HD) gets in on the interview action as well, discussing past experiences in making and screening films with his brother as well as how the film correlates with Pedro's perspective on women. He also overlaps some content by discussing the screwball origins of the content, as well as revealing how integral the casting was for this project. The Almodovars are clearly on the same wavelengths, and it shows in the sameness of some of their discussion, only with Agustin's perspective looking inward. An interview with Richard Pena (11:06, 16x9 HD) also charts the pathway in which Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn made its way into the New York Film Festival and why it's such a profound embodiment of Almodovar's perspective and body of work. He dissects some of the devices within the film, as well as chatting about themes, motifs, and the era in which the film was created and released.
The Criterion Collection have also included an English-narrated, Orion-branded Theatrical Trailer (1:45, 16x9 HD).
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdoiwn is a smart, meaningful, and entertaining piece of work from Pedro Almodovar that can be look at in a couple of different ways: it's either a drama whose screwball-comedy moving parts are too jarring against the filmmaker's intents, or it's a screwball comedy whose pensive, dark-leaning twists don't draw the kind of laughs expected of the genre. The performances are universally superb, especially from Carmen Maura, while Almodovar's authentic grasp on language creates a specific brand of energy around his vivacious production design. It's a sharp, playful glimpse at womanizers and, particularly, at those who fall under their spell, yet while the peaks and valleys in the film's intentions and tone might be viewed as versatile to some, they can also appear scattershot and unfocused. A distinct piece of work, to be sure. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray is predictably terrific, sporting a jaw-dropping 2K resolution transfer and a foursome of quality interviews. Very strongly Recommended.