BFI Classics: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Author: Peter William Evans


Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was something of a breakthrough film for Pedro Almódovar – so it’s fitting that this film is included in the BFI Modern Classics range of books. Made in 1988, and meeting with international acclaim and winning an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, this film typifies the language of Almódovar’s films and breaks away from the campy punk kitsch found in some of his first films (a change already witnessed with What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)). 

The film also starred early Almódovar fave Carmen Maura (the pair fell out during the Oscar ceremony in a rather public fashion, but have subsequently reconciled). Maura had previously appeared in five of Almódovar’s films; little surprise, therefore, that there should be a chapter devoted to her in this book. Author Peter William Evans uses this chapter to contextualise Maura, her role and even biography within the postmodern cross-over of melodrama and farce of Almódovar’s film. What emerges throughout the book is that Evans, a Professor of Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London is something of a bonus as he brings his specialist knowledge of Spanish culture and history to the fore, putting Madrid culture, Almódovar and the post-Franco Spain in context with this film. And he never loses sight of the importance of the misè-en-scéne, how the cast are dressed and the colours the flamboyant director uses for effect. It’s those shifts of gear and comedy between melodrama and farce that Evans keeps turning too as Almódovar consciously twists and turns throughout the book.

Women on the Verge focuses on a character called Pepa (Maura) who’s just been dumped by her lover Ivan. She burns their conjugal bed, throws out some of Ivan’s belongings and is (of course) on the verge of a breakdown. A short while later she’s visited by Ivan’s son (Antonio Banderas) and his bird-like fiancée Marisa (Rosy De Palma) who come to her flat with the intention of buying it without realising each other’s existence. She’s also visited by her extravagant friend Candela (Maria Barranco) who’s on the run from her boyfriend who she’s discovered is a Shiite terrorist… And so the drama plays out between the characters as Pepa tries to make sense of her past relationship with Ivan. Clearly as the plot unravels, parallels with such classic melodramas as The Women (1939) are apparent.

Evans opens the book with just a two page synopsis without undertaking the usual film monograph tack of analysing each scene throughout the book, allowing him scope to be able to break the film down by peeking into Spanish culture post-Franco. These are some interesting revelations and he helps to set the record straight. Where Evans might leave the reader scratching their head is with the myriad of references to popular Spanish films pre-80s, which will be unknown outside of their home country, along with popular Spanish dramas and television. As this is a postmodern film he inserts those cinematic influences that are both obvious and less obvious such as Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk’s 50s melodramas, the above mentioned The Women and the pop imagery and graphics of Funny Face (1957), both films to which Evans refers to on a number of occasions; theories by Freud, Althusser, Thomas Elasaesser and Laura Mulvey are also drawn in highlighting that this is a postmodern text and film.

Written and published in 1996, Almódovar has gone on to make many other equally good, if not better, films since Women on the Verge, but as I mentioned at the beginning this was a breakthrough film for the Spaniard and marked a decisive change in his oeuvre propelling him to international fame.

Chris Hick

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