The film that launched Almodovar internationally as an auteur is a tragicomic screwball farce whose effortless execution is as impressive as it is sublime.
Dir. Pedro Almodovar
1988 | Spain | Drama/Comedy | 89 mins | 1.85:1 | Spanish
PG13 (passed clean) for some mature themes
Cast: Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano, María Barranco, Rossy de Palma
Plot: A television actress encounters a variety of eccentric characters after embarking on a journey to discover why her lover abruptly left her.
Awards: Won Best Actress & Screenplay (Venice). Won People’s Choice Award (Toronto). Nom. for 1 Oscar – Best Foreign Language Feature
Source: Sony Pictures Classics
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray – first published 29 Mar 2018)
Pedro Almodovar really hit it out of the park with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the breakthrough film that launched his career internationally.
Winning Best Actress (for Carmen Maura) and Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, in addition to being nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Women is everything you can ask for an Almodovar picture, establishing very much the auteur’s singular style that would be similarly fashioned in his later works, particularly All About My Mother (1999), arguably his masterpiece.
Maura gives one of her greatest performances as Pepa, a woman who’s at a loss when her lover leaves her without any explanation. A simple premise as that is expanded with such skilful dexterity by Almodovar, who weaves a tapestry of colourful characters, mostly women, each of whom has demons to battle.
Inspired largely by the Classical Hollywood screwball comedy, Women is as farcical as it is serious, achieving a near-perfect balance of comedy and drama, best exemplified by Maura’s display, which is on the knife-edge between the tragic and the comic.
I must stress the emphasis on ‘knife-edge’ because like its mouthful of a title suggests, the movie is a breathless affair, as one scenario piles up over another, and characters get themselves in situations that audiences don’t really know whether to laugh or cry, with a measure of suspense.
“That lady is dangerous.”
“No lady’s dangerous if you know how to handle her.”
But Almodovar’s effortless execution, impressive as it is, also enters the sublime. There is a deep well of pathos in which the cast are able to tap into, which gives Women a wistful quality, although it is very much a film about the agency and independence of the female.
From the indelible opening credits to its beautiful final moment, Women is as absorbing as it gets, not least because Almodovar is as much a great screenwriter as he is a cinematic director.
Any lesser filmmaker would have made it like a teleplay, as if a chamber drama that takes itself very seriously. But Almodovar doesn’t want the movie or its audiences to do that. He wants you to approach the work as if you are an invisible character, who is unsure how the proceedings will develop and turn out.
That is not to say that Women is unpredictable, but such is the auteur’s confidence in his material and craft that you will find yourself utterly delighted to throw your full weight into it and let the work bring you to an artful place.