The Greatest films of all time: 78.Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown (1988) (Spain)


While American cinema as an art medium fell with digitalism and special effects in exaggeration and to commercialism initiated by Lucas and Spielberg, and revived only briefly with the subject of Vietnam war on the screen, the cinema in other countries such as Italy and Spain took a life again. Right at the same year of 1988 when Italian cinema revived with “Cinema Paradiso” by Giuseppe Tornatore, the Spanish cinema came to the forefront of world attention with “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” by Pedro Almodovar. A country going to civil war for freedom and democracy in 1930’s, but defeated by the phalanges leading by the dictator Franco, revolted once again but this time culturally in mid 70s after the death of the dictator.

Raising professionally during this cultural renaissance and interested in experimental theatre and cinema, Almodovar used cinema as a medium to express his and his country revival to freedom. From his first feature debut, “Pepi, Luci, Bom” that he shot in 16mm in 1982 then blew it up into 35 mm feature to his “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” in 1988 that brought him to the global attention and his last film “Pain and Glory” that just released recently in 2019, Almodovar’s style like his master Louis Bunuel is unconventional, satirical, simultaneously dark and funny, and appealing to everyone from the lay to critical viewers.

Acclaimed as one of the great contemporary filmmakers, Almodovar already has won 2 American academy, 5 British, 6 European, 2 Golden Globes and 9 Goya Awards, 4 Cannes Film Festival prizes. He is a holder of French Legion of Honour in 1997, Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts from the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1999, a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, an honorary doctoral degree from Harvard University in 2009, and from Oxford University in 2016, an honorary European Film Academy Achievement id World Cinema award in 2013, the President of 2017 Cannes Film Festival and is scheduled to receive the Honorary Golden Lion from the 76th Venice Film Festival in August 2019.  

Renaissance in Cinema:

As important as the Italian “Neorealism” and French “Avant Garde” movements in cinema in 40’s to 60’s, the revival and renaissance of cinema in Italy and Spain saved this art medium from falling in the oblivion of digitalism and commercialism. Against the dominance of Hollywood over the world cinema with its heavy commercial box office productions that in later years followed by TV, internet and streaming film companies productions, this renaissance to this very day has kept the art of cinema to some degree alive.

Adapted partly form Jean Cocteau’s melodrama play “The Human Voice” of 1930, an actress Pepa (Carmen Maura) tries to avoid being dumped by her actor boyfriend Ivan (Fernando Guillen). The dishonest two-faced man while leaving phone message for Pepa that how much he loves her, tries to avoid her and finally asking her to have his suitcase packed as he has to go away on a trip. The hysterical reactions of the desperate Pepa that later on getting intertwined with the hysterical reactions of her friend Candela (Maria Barranco) and Ivan son’s fiancé Marcia (Rossy de Palma) creates an irresistible and pleasing comedy melodrama. The freedom and unconventional innovative camera moves, angles and close ups in every frame, corroborated well with a variety of music scores and great performances bring back life to cinema. But this time unlike Bunuel’s, the film is not only for the intellectual palates, but a film subject of fun and laughter for everyone.

Pepa’s chase of her boyfriend and his lovers in the same taxi with a hilarious and odd driver who sells also many things including cigarettes and has a note saying “thank you for smoking” complements the comic drama pace of the film. Pepa’s burning her bed while burning her and boyfriend’s letters and photos, to ripping her phone and throwing it through the window are all hysterical reactions of a desperate woman that makes the film hilarious. Candela who has had a brief relationship with a Shiite’s man but finds out later being a terrorist and prosecuted by the police, keeps leaving frantic phone messages for Pepa that adds to their both desperate situations. Coincidental arrival of Ivan’s son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas) with her fiancé Marisa looking for a rental apartment to Pepa’s penthouse that is up for rent, create a multilayered and multi-personal comic dramatic situations.

In Pepa’s apartment where all the above present, desperate Candela worried of being arrested by the police for association with the terrorists, jumps off the balcony to kill herself but saved by Pepa, Carlos and Marisa. Meanwhile, Marisa who is bored, opens the fridge and finds and drinks gazpacho, a tomato juice mixed with spices that Pepa had made earlier and had put barbiturate pills in it for calming effect that puts her to sleep right away. Pepa trying to help Candela with her legal situation by consulting with a lawyer suggested by Carlos, again gets into the same cab with the same Mambo-loving driver. The lawyer she visits, Paulina (Kiti Manver) who acts strangely, is discovered by Pepa to have a flight ticket to Stockholm, where Iván plans to fly and when he calls her office, it’s confirmed that they are traveling together.

Meanwhile, Candela reveals to Carlos that the terrorists plan to hijack a flight to Stockholm that evening and divert it to Beirut. Carlos calls the police and reports the plan but hangs up before being traced. Pepa now tired of Iván and his multi-relationships and lies, throws his suitcase downstairs and when returns to her apartment and hears the song of “Soy Infeliz”, which Carlos is playing, in rage throws the record out of the window, that it ends up hitting Paulina on head. Pepa then hears Iván’s message and once again rips out the phone and throws the answering machine out of the window that lands on Paulina’s car.

Back in the apartment, Ivan’s old girlfriend and Carols’ mother, Lucía (Julieta Serrano) arrives at the same time with the phone repairman and the police, who have traced Carlos’ earlier call. Candela starts to panic, but Carlos comes up with the idea of serving everyone the drugged gazpacho. The policemen and repairman are knocked out, Carlos and Candela make out on the sofa and also fall asleep, and Lucía grabs the policemen’s guns and aims it at Pepa, who figures out that Paulina is the other woman Iván is going to Stockholm with, and that their flight is the one that the terrorists are planning to hijack. She throws the gazpacho into Pepa’s face and goes out forcing a motorcyclist at the gunpoint to drive her to the airport to kill Iván. In another chase, riding the same taxi, Pepa follows the crazy Paulina and is joined by her neighbour Ana, the motorcyclist’s girlfriend, while Lucía keeps firing the gun at them.

At the airport, Lucia seeing Iván and Paulina about to pass security, aims her gun at them, but Pepa arriving just in time pushes a luggage cart at her that drops her and ends the killing attempt. Now Iván runs over to Pepa thanking her for saving his life and again trying to deceive her that he could even leave her current lover, Paulina and return to her. But Pepa refuses, saying “There was still time last night, this morning, even today at noon. But now it’s too late.” Returning to her apartment, that is totally a mess with a burnt bed, broken windows, ripped telephone, spilled gazpacho and unconscious visitors on the floor, and her chickens and geese running around loose, Pepa sits on her balcony with Marisa who has just woken up and reveals to her being pregnant with Iván.

While Hollywood still by the end of 80’s was stuck in only storytelling and focus on the content of the plot without much attention on the visual aspect of the films as an art format, Almodovar used his script, camera, editing, cinematography and music score to impress the audience as such. With his multi-faceted and intertwined multi-personal relationships plot, Almodovar was able to create not one or a few exciting, hysterical, comic and action moments, but multiple with an incessant tempo. Focusing the camera with the close up shots on Pepa’s shoes when pacing nervously, showing her face through the recording tapes of the answering machine while listening to Ivan’s message, and ending in the same cab chasing others all make the film great only with Almodovar’s free style, unconventional while thoughtful filmmaking method.

Ranking the same 78 in Empire’s magazine’s “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema”, the film won five Goya awards in Spain, best foreign language film in Italy, and by the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics awards. The film has been also lately in 2010 adapted in to a Broadway stage production and later on in London’s West End at the Playhouse Theatre.  


In closing remarks “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” while not original in any aspects of filmmaking, but it is original in a renaissance in cinema for return of the medium to its visual art format. Meanwhile the hysterical and exaggerated context and format of the film is original to be adapted in later films.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” is in its thoughtful and free style use of camera, cinematography and music score to create a comedy drama in a fast intertwined pace.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” has been on later films on the screen, TV and stage adaptation directly or indirectly, in content or format.
  4. Survival: “Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown” has survived well to this very day in being a classic of its own and still a pleasure to watch and adapt in different formats.

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