Friday, April 22, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On - At the Movies #11 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

This is the first film that brought Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar on to the radar of a larger American audience, and it’s no surprise that it should – it represents the first big leap forward that he made in the style and quality of his films (he’d make more later, but this was the initial breakthrough). Almodóvar had been making feature films for over ten years by the time he released Women on the Verge and it’s a consolidation of everything he’d done over the decade – incorporating his love of bright, candy-colored scenes and costumes, of the genres of the screwball comedy and the melodrama (and the trash aesthetic of director John Waters) and the gleefully absurd plots that go with them, and of a strong female lead character who’s usually under romantic duress. While he’d used all these elements in his earlier films this was his most successful effort to date, harnessing the talented Carmen Maura (who appeared in many of Almodóvar’s earlier works) as our beleaguered heroine into a story about a voiceover artist who’s afraid that the married man she’s having an affair with is returning to his wife, who’s recently been released from a mental hospital and who suspects that there is yet another woman involved and… well, let me back up a second. I could go on to describe the plot at length, but the absurdity of Almodóvar’s plots, coupled with the fact that half the fun of his movies is watching how they unfold, prevents me from revealing too much. It’s absurd, sure, but think back to the great screwball comedies – implausibility is suspended
when you’re in the moment of the film because it just feels right while you’re watching it. It’s no more ridiculous to see the tangled web of relationships here, criss-crossing those falling together and those falling apart while the spiked gazpacho in the blender and the burning mattress form a backdrop to the ensemble’s collective romantic woes, than it is to watch Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant locked in the jail with the rest of the characters while two tigers roam free and a dog is burying a rare dinosaur bone in Bringing Up Baby – the writing and pacing of the film make each improbable moment lead inexorably into the next one in a breathless way that doesn’t let you stop to say “wait a second, this is nonsense.” It simply feels right every step of the way and Almodóvar had never been this assured – or this funny – up until this point. He’d make another leap forward about a decade later with the terrific Live Flesh, and he’s continued to spin out great film after great film since then, even taking home an Academy Award for screenwriting for 2002’s Talk to Her (he’d already won the Best Foreign Film award for the terrific All About My Mother and been nominated for Women on the Verge), with 2009’s Broken Embraces (which refers back playfully to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) a new high water mark for his work – and possibly another giant step forward. Only time will tell.
-Patrick Brown

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