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Pedro Almodóvar’s Colorful Screwball Comedy on Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 855
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was inspired, in part, by La Voix humaine, a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau. The film that brought Pedro Almodóvar international fame, it was the first of his movies I saw, in a small art house in Washington, DC. It blew me away -- here was Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Ball of Fire (1941) given a Spanish flare, brought up to date for 1988, and presented in vibrant, even outrageous color. Nearly 30 years later, I felt the same rush while watching this new reissue, one of the best the Criterion Collection has ever presented.
The secret to the fun in this film is that it’s played seriously. We laugh not so much at the characters as with them. It’s screwball comedy all the way, presented at a breathless pace, with situations that build on each other, becoming increasingly complicated until everything is resolved in the closing minutes.
Carmen Maura, who appeared in eight of Almodóvar’s films, plays Pepa, and, with her perfect timing and endless charm in this performance, entered the ranks of the great film comics of all time. Pepa has just been dumped by her older lover, Iván (Fernando Guillén), with whom she worked in a film dubbing studio (Women on the Verge is loaded with direct and indirect allusions to cinema). Intending to kill herself, Pepa makes a blender full of fresh gazpacho, then laces it with what she thinks are enough drugs to kill a horse. But the gazpacho just puts people into a long, blissful sleep, and becomes one of the film’s major characters.
Iván’s son, Carlos (a young Antonio Banderas, in geeky glasses), arrives with his fiancée, Marisa (Rossy de Palma), who drinks some gazpacho and promptly passes out. They put her in a chair on Pepa’s patio, which is loaded with plants, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Other characters enter the plot, which escalates and complicates until Pepa and Iván’s wife, Lucía (Julieta Serrano), find themselves in a zany high-speed chase en route to the airport.
The video transfer was supervised by Almodóvar, who likes his colors bold and bright, and this Criterion edition is, in one word, breathtaking, and in another, scintillating. Add to that rich, robust palette a sharpness that gives each person and object tremendous presence, and you have a video transfer second to none. The sparkling 2.0-channel soundtrack is very effective, as is the alternate 5.1-channel surround track (both are DTS-HD Master Audio).
The extras are skimpy but interesting: interviews with Almodóvar, his executive producer Agustín Almodóvar (the director’s brother), Maura, and film scholar Richard Peña; a theatrical trailer; and, in the booklet, a thoughtful essay by novelist and film scholar Elvira Lindo.
In the guise of a tribute to the Hollywood screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown captures the excitement the Spanish felt throughout the 1980s, as their civil liberties continued to be restored following the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975). It’s a must-see that will amaze and entertain you -- especially in this new addition to the Criterion Collection.
Be sure to watch for: There’s so much to see in this film, but I’m always amazed at the shot of Lucía’s head, which seems to float by itself during the crazy endgame chase -- and, in a scene near the beginning, as Pepa paces, a close-up on her shoes instead of her entire body. Always expect an unexpected angle or close-up from Almodóvar.
. . . Rad Bennett