Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Review

This disc is currently only available as part of Optimum's Almodóvar The Collection: Volume One boxed set.

As is typical with Pedro Almodóvar, the title sequence tells us most of what we need to know. In stark contrast with the punkier, less focussed early works, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is a more precise, more elegant affair. That said, the opening shot a model version of the apartment block where much is the film is set demonstrates that the director is still in touch with his tongue-in-cheek attitude and a fondness for the cheap and the over-the-top. Indeed, Women on the Verge… represents the pinnacle of Almodóvar’s early career – whilst pointedly mainstream (it would go on to break box office records in both Spain and the US), it never loses sight of the energy and enthusiasm which were key to Pepi, Luci, Bom…, Matador, and the rest.

The result is Almodóvar’s first film to interact with voices outside of the director’s own. Its two principle characters, Carmen Maura’s Pepa and Fernando Guillén as ex-lover Iván, dub classic films into the Spanish language thereby allowing the gothic Western melodrama of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar to invade proceedings early on and proclaim its influence. Thus Maura becomes a kind of surrogate Joan Crawford, her life as we see it bringing to mind a collection of “women’s pictures” highpoints: not only is she having (or rather has had) an affair with a married man, but she’s also prone to suicide attempts and addicted to sleeping pills.

Of course, this inevitably brings to mind Maura’s bored housewife from Almodóvar’s 1984 effort What Have I Done to Deserve This?, though here she’s moved up a class and resides in less tawdry environs. Moreover, her director pre-empts François Ozon by fifteen years and uses George Cukor’s The Women as a major influence. As such Pepa’s own quest to discover why Iván has left her is able to expand and escalate into a grander narrative governed by more characters and huge coincidences. Indeed, it’s the perfect arena for both melodrama and screwball comedy – and Women on the Verge… does them both extremely well. Unlike many of Almodovar’s earlier efforts, we’re able to fully engross ourselves in the drama as it continually takes in new turns as well as Shiite terrorists and “follow that car” instructions to tearful cabbies. Certainly, the rich character sketches and the director’s usual repertory company make themselves known – Chus Lampreave, Antonio Banderas, et al - but here they’re unified by something more than a raucous mood and non-stop humour; even composer Bernardo Bonezzi is able to indulge himself in a score which contains big flourishes and ups the suspense.

Stylistically too we witness a greater attention to the overall shape of the film. Almodóvar repeatedly frames in close-up, picking up on the tiniest details with a near fetishistic attitude. I’d argue that Women on the Verge… still has a fixation with kitsch, yet at the same time it feels incredibly classy. Indeed, this is an astonishingly beautiful film to look at, one which shares a similar palette to the likes of Dark Habits - plenty of red, pinks and blues – yet approaches them with a more defined aim. Every frame appears just so, rather than merely thrown together. It is possible to imagine Women on the Verge… as one of these earlier works only with a greater sheen, yet that doesn’t do it justice. Rather it’s a huge step up in every way, his first masterpiece and one which paves the way for the more emotionally complex works which were to follow.

The Disc

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has previously been available in the UK as a Region 2 release from MGM. That particular disc was without extras and came without anamorphic enhancement, here we get both. However, whereas that disc also offered optional subtitling, here the English subs are burnt-in. Otherwise, the presentation is mostly fine. The colour scheme is well handled and the print remains clean throughout. The only problem other than the subtitling is the intermittent appearance of artefacting, though this is moderate and can only be discerned on the rare occasion. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original Spanish present as a DD2.0 mix and it comes across especially well, coping ably with both the dialogue and Bonezzi’s score. With regards to the extras, this disc follows the pattern set by Pepi, Luci, Bom… and Dark Habits and offers an enthusiastic introduction from film critic José Arroyo which places the film in its context and offers some background into its success.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:03:48

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