March 16, 2013

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) reminded me a little of some screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s (The Lady Eve, Bringing Up Baby, The Talk of the Town), in which seemingly random events eventually reveal themselves as part of a grand comic design. The star of the film, Carmen Maura, plays Pepa, a TV actress who lives in Madrid. Pepa is despondent because her relationship with Ivan (Fernando Guillen), a fellow actor, is over. The movie traces her despair which turns into anger but always in a half-serious way.

Almodovar is apparently going for high melodrama as comedy. Whenever possible, he finds a way to stylize, to inflate, and to parody, a scene. He uses colorful objects (blue lamps and red phones and flashy costumes that refuse to let this film seem ordinary in any way) and he invites his actors to become caricatures. The spurned ex-wife of Ivan, Lucia (Julieta Serrano), looks like a 60-year-old Liz Taylor drag queen with her fake eyelashes and big black 60s wig and pink dress. And Antonio Banderas, as Ivan's grown son, is a faux-naive protegee of his father, making out with Pepa's troubled friend Candela (Maria Barranco) even though he's engaged to Marisa (Rossy De Palma). This is the cinema of soap opera addicts who watch their soaps with ironic glee. (Candela, it's worth mentioning, is trying to evade the police: she was involved with a Shiite terrorist planning to hijack a plane bound for Madrid, and is terrified that she'll be nabbed as an accomplice.)

There are moments of Women on the Verge that are laugh-out-loud funny. At other times, the movie drags. Surely something is going to be lost in the translation, especially in a comedy; but it's easy to see why people raved about this movie in 1988. It has an eccentric flair to it. It is itself like watching a drag queen: there's a sort of surreal fascination and perverse pleasure involved.

With Kiti Manver. 90 min. ½

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