THE CURBSIDE CRITERION: WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
(We here at Hammer to Nail are all about true independent cinema. But we also have to tip our hat to the great films of yesteryear that continue to inspire filmmakers and cinephiles alike. This week, our “The Curbside Criterion” continues where HtN staff can trot out thoughts on the finest films ever made. Today HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed joins the crowd on Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.)
The first film by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar I ever saw was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. A delightfully manic exercise in both screwball and slapstick comedies, the movie set the bar very high, for me, for all future Almodóvar works. His ninth feature, it came at the ten-year mark of his career and helped propel him from a regional to an international artist. Now beautifully packaged by Criterion, it is available to all in a stunning 2K restoration that provides a lovely showcase for this crazy romp through the sexual politics of late-1980s Madrid.
What’s not to like? First, there’s the powerful central performance from Carmen Maura as Pepa, an actress abandoned by, Iván, her feckless older lover. Then there’s another, younger actress – Pepa’s friend, Candela – who is convinced that her recent sexual dalliance with potential terrorists makes her guilty by association. Meanwhile, Iván’s wife, Lucía, fresh from an asylum, stalks any potential rivals for her man, even though he hasn’t lived with her for years. When Lucía and Iván’s son, Carlos – played by a pre-Hollywood Antonio Banderas – shows up at Pepa’s apartment with his fiancée Marisa in tow, knowing nothing about who she is but only interested in the real estate, the set-up is almost complete. Don’t forget those terrorists, the threat of whom eventually bring the police, just as Candela feared. And all the while, the hysteria rises, culminating in the explosively brilliant – and very funny – conclusion.
Though the style and tone of this movie differ from later, more mature Almodóvar works, such as All About My Mother and Volver, one can see the real emergence, here, of Almodóvar’s vivid production design. He mixes vibrant colors, including Pepa’s red gazpacho that plays an important plot point, with opposing cooler blues and greens as a counterpoint when the emotional hijinks briefly calm down. Despite its title, the movie is a celebration of female resilience and strength, as are most Almodóvar films. Throw what you will at them, they nevertheless persist. Gleeful anarchy has never looked so good. With excellent audio and visual quality, the new Criterion Blu-ray is a must-have purchase for fans of Almodóvar and of comedy, in general.
What follows is a brief review of each special feature, including the booklet essay.
“A Sweet New Style,” essay by Spanish Novelist and TV/Film writer Elvira Lindo (translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and Anna Thorngate): Lindo writes from the perspective of someone who was active, both professionally and personally, in Madrid at the time of the film’s release, and helps place it in its appropriate socio-politico-historical context. She discusses how “Madrid was the nerve center of [a post-Franco] 1980s youth movement, christened “La Movida,” which was ultimately more about pleasure seeking than it was about building a cultural movement.” Almodóvar was in the middle of that movement. She also writes that “his films, whether or not they intended to communicate a political message, contributed to the expansion of our individual rights, especially those of women and gay people.” A good essay that is a perfect complement to the movie.
There are five special features:
- 2016 Interview with Pedro Almodóvar (16:53): Almodóvar, like Elvira Lindo, mentions the 1980s expansion of personal freedoms in post-Franco Spain. In the world of this movie, he says, everything is perfect, except the way that men still treat women. He explains how he had long wanted to adapt Jean Cocteau’s short play “The Human Voice,” only as a comedy, which is what he has effectively done here. This is also a tribute to the “high comedy” (his phrase) of American cinema of the 1930s and ’40s, and also to movies, in general, given the many scenes of dubbing (Pepa’s and Iván’s work) of Hollywood films into Spanish. A great, lively interview, that covers much of what motivated him to make the film.
- 2016 Interview with Carmen Maura (19:07): This is another wonderful interview. Maura walks us through the details of her early career, how she met Almodóvar, and how Women on the Verge was not only a watershed for the director, but for her, opening up many options, especially for a woman in her 40s, as she was then.
- 2016 Interview with Agustín Almodóvar (brother and producer) (16:12): And another terrific piece. The Almodóvar brothers have been a team since the beginning, with Pedro as director and Agustín as producer (he plays a small role in Women, as the real estate agent, as well). Among the many great details he reveals about the production, perhaps my favorite is his discussion of how the technicolor Hollywood films of the 1950s were the main design reference for his brother in the making of this movie.
- 2016 Interview with Richard Peña, Professor and Former Director of the New York Film Festival (11:06): Peña talks about how he struggled, in his first year as director of the New York Film Festival, to find the perfect movie for opening night, one that make a bold statement about his own curatorial prowess. When he saw Women at Cannes at a special screening in 1988, he knew he had found his opening film. Beyond this charming anecdote, Peña goes on to break down the themes and resonances of the movie in a very astute analysis. This is a strong addition to the disc, as well.
- Trailer (1:45): This is the original theatrical trailer, just as I remember it. Great fun!
And there you go. I highly recommend.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)