A love letter to cinema and post-Franco Spain, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is an ebullient comedy propelled at a manic clip, drenched in colors so rich they seem edible. That so many of story’s antics are mordant in nature is a testament to writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s skewed sensibilities, which posit that the aesthetically trashy and morally suspect are as endemic to the pleasures of life as the elegant and ethical. At the film’s core is Pepa (Carmen Maura), an actress driven to suicidal thoughts by a breakup with her boyfriend, Iván (Fernando Guillén). Pepa’s depression is so deep and dense that it lends her a gravitational pull, gradually sucking in a number of characters embroiled in their own neuroses.
Numerous films are directly referenced throughout, from the Funny Face-aping opening credits to the use of footage from Johnny Guitar, but the prevailing influence is that of screwball comedy. Pepa’s suicidal despair is rendered as farce, one that escalates so intensely that it grows beyond its source and begins to infect the many people who improbably stop by Pepa’s apartment on her intended day of death and drive her to distraction. Much of the comedy here hinges on a batch of gazpacho that Pepa spikes with sleeping pills as a last meal, a dish that ultimately knocks out many of the guests who end up tasting it. Iván’s son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), arrives with his fiancée, Marisa (Rossy de Palma), and hangs around trying to cop a feel off the women who stop by. One of Pepa’s friends, Candela (María Barranco), confesses that an Arab man she slept with was secretly part of a group of Shiite terrorists, which eventually brings the cops around just as the body count of gazpacho-drugged guests reaches its zenith.
Almodóvar films this cavalcade of absurdities with the frenzy it deserves. Deep reds and verdant greens ape the Technicolor splendor of classic Hollywood melodramas; characters appear to be consciously competing with the film’s colors, which practically burn in their brightness. In a Felliniesque detour, the filmmaker includes a black-and-white reverie of Iván scummily slinking through a great hall filled with his many sexual conquests, muttering sweet nothings at them through a microphone, as if emceeing his own masturbatory nostalgia. One particularly memorable recurring image involves a mambo-loving cabbie who decks out his vehicle with leopard-print seats and, for his more bohemian passengers, a small medicine cabinet.
As overwhelming as the film’s imagery is, though, Maura never gets lost in the madness. She infuses Pepa with the unnerving clarity of an unstable person who finds calm only in the assurance of her impending demise, and the actress draws her comedy from the contrast of Pepa’s firm conviction with the endless impediments placed in the way of her suicide. In an early fit of pique, Pepa accidentally lights an entire matchbox on her bed, sending the mattress up in flames while she plans her death. When the woman notices that her bed is burning, she pauses and stares at the fire with a curious expression on her face, as if wondering whether to let this conflagration play itself out and take her with it. Every screwball needs a straight man, and Maura manages to walk a fine line here to make Pepa both the most manic character and the bemused witness to her own crack-up. More than any other aspect of the film, Maura’s performance ties together the scattered plot and constantly rising action, cementing this as one of the finest comedies of the 1980s.
José Luis Alcaine's cinematography looks resplendent in the Criterion Collection's 2K restoration. Natural tones of all kinds are eschewed throughout, and the disc's transfer highlights the artifice of the film, from the too-perfect greens of the plants that fill Pepa's apartment to the purple velvet of a studio recording booth. The skies overhead exude the hot blue of a pilot light, and red objects radiate so brightly that they seem to give off heat. Previous DVD releases of the film haven't come close to retaining the level of color depth seen here. The original 2.0 audio track is similarly strong and clear, and the disc also comes with a remixed 5.1 surround track, though the dialogue-driven nature of the film makes this mix largely superfluous. The audio sounds punchier on the 2.0 track, where the dialogue stays clear of the Foley effects and music to give the comedy an added sense of urgency.
The disc's main features are a series of individual interviews with Almodóvar, his brother and producer, Agustin Almodóvar, and Carmen Maura. Each contributor delves into the general arcs of their careers before focusing on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as a breakthrough. Maura recalls her early struggles to take up acting over her family's objections, especially when she fell in with the gay Almodóvar, as well as the jarring dissonance of transitioning from a local, wholesome TV anchor to the director's muse. Almodóvar speaks more broadly of the vision of Spain he wished to impart with the film as well as his cinematic influences, while his brother delves into how the director approaches female perspectives in his work. Film programmer Richard Peña also contributes a video interview in which he explores the film's various themes, mingled with his own memories of programming the film in his first year as the head of the New York Film Festival. Finally, the disc comes with a theatrical trailer and an essay by Spanish novelist and critic Elvira Lindo, who filters her observations on the film with her own memories of the socialist Spain that it celebrates.
Criterion's 2K restoration of Pedro Almodóvar's breakthrough feature looks gorgeous, maximizing its gaudy colors and aesthetic abandon for the first time on home video.