Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.
How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar is today considered a canonical figure in international cinema. His films have earned two Academy Awards (Best Foreign Language Film for All About My Mother and Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her) and a cult following beyond Spanish-speaking territories through nearly four decades. Yet, such unanimous acclaim did not materialize instantly. In the U.S., his first five features were seen as hidden gems among foreign language film enthusiasts who quickly identified him as the leading force in post-Franco Spanish moviemaking. Yet substantial overseas attention didn’t come until the release of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988—his first project with a budget that allowed him to shoot on a set, and afforded him greater precision with every element.
Starring the astute and emotionally charged Carmen Maura, a recurrent player in Almodóvar’s early filmography, as Pepa, Women on the Verge is a tragicomedy about a voiceover actress desperate to connect with her married lover, Iván (Fernando Guillén). While dealing with her heartbreak, Pepa is surrounded by an array of supporting characters that emphasize the female experience of deceit at the hands of men. The spectrum Almodóvar presents includes Iván’s wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano), who has lost her mind and holds on to the past; Candela (Maria Barranco), a naïve young woman who felt in love with a terrorist; and Marisa (Rossy de Palma), a virgin who is doubtful of her fiancé’s commitment. All these characters are pushed over the edge of sanity over the course of the twisty and hilarious plot.
Weaved into the outrageous situational humor is a statement about the dreamlike aspirations of a country that had recently been freed from a dictatorship, an element of double entendre shared by most of the director’s films. Underneath Almodóvar’s farce and melodrama, there is always intellectual depth dressed in vibrant shades. The new Criterion Collection release of the director’s first Oscar-nominated feature allows viewers to explore its position as his breakthrough and the inception of his stylistic signature.
Lessons in Color and Design
Detail-oriented to an extent that very few directors can claim, Pedro Almodóvar doesn’t believe in coincidences when it comes to color palette, costumes and production design. Although his obsession for specificity in what his actors wear and what objects adorn his spaces is now well known, when Women on the Verge was released, that trait of his was just starting to bloom. Because Almodóvar was able to create Pepa’s apartment from scratch on a set (a luxury that came with a larger budget than he’s previously had), every corner of this singular place, in which a large part of the film takes place, is decorated with artifacts in a wide range of reds, oranges and pinks: from the telephone to the flower bases to the gazpacho. These tones matche that of Pepa’s outfits. Every single one of her costumes is red, with the exception of a purple skirt suit she uses in a moment of empowerment.
For Almodóvar, these color selections express the characters’ emotional state in the most sincere way possible. Pepa is passionate and heartbroken, and that is reflected on her attires. Similarly, Lucia, the deranged ex-wife, is defined by her clothing. She wears garments from the 1960s, before she lost her sanity, as a way to deny times has passed. Without her wigs and outdated pieces, she doesn’t know who she is. More subtly, Marisa wears red even though she is asleep for most of the proceedings. When she wakes up, it’s clear she has had an epiphany and understands Pepa’s disdain for men, thus empathizing with her not only verbally, but visually.
Lessons in Using Objects as Symbols
Even if the underlying historical backdrop of Women on the Verge is indelibly Spanish, Almodóvar’s creative and thematic influences couldn’t be more varied. Heavily shaped by the American films Almodóvar admired, the screenplay and performances in the film are grounded on tropes from screwball comedies from the ’30s and ’40s, but reinvented and adapted to fit his fiery vision. The initial premise, however, for this particular project had its origins in Jean Cocteau’s short play The Human Voice, which centered on a devastating phone conversation. Instead of being faithful to that text, the auteur kept its essence and the importance of the relationship between two people via this external receptor and formulated a longer drama with subplots. Cocteau remained as an inspiration, but more literally.
Rather than being a physical presence, Iván, the unfaithful man at the center of Pepa’s quest, exists mostly through his voice. That he, like Pepa, is a voiceover actor becomes a crucial factor in the couple’s disconnect. Thus, any electronic device that captures or emits voices a significant symbol (Iván and Pepa also leave each other voice messages at different points in the story). Almodóvar brings these objects to the forefront on several occasions, to reinforce the idea that these two people who once were lovers can now only communicate through these technological intermediaries.
Pepa’s red phone and her voicemail recorder are elevated from their practical, quotidian use, becoming her lifeline. In an early scene, Iván’s lips and his microphone are introduced in an extreme close-up that leaves no room for anything else but his deep voice. This is followed by a surrealist depiction of all the lives he has lived and lies he has told playing a character, both while dubbing content and in his personal life. In turn, when Pepa’s anger becomes unbearable, the only way she can find release is by destroying the telephone or recorder to prevent Ivan from calling. Yet everywhere she goes, a phone booth or phone line continue to serve as vehicles to advance the story and reveal new information.
This new release features four separate interviews: three key people involved in the production, and an outsider who discovered the film and shared it with a larger audience. First, Pedro Almodóvar himself looks back at the turning point that Women on the Verge represented for his career. With his personal brand of candor, he explains why comedy allows him the most freedom, and the personal demons he exorcised through humor in this film, which he wrote in just three months. The master also touches on the idealized iteration of Spain he wanted to depict, and his love for pushing his characters to the edge to see where they can go from there. For him, this film caps off his body of work in the 1980s and opens the door into a new chapter.
In her interview, lead actress Carmen Maura reminisces on her life and career before and after meeting Almodóvar. Thanks to him, she gave up a prominent television job that she disliked. Maura also notes that she believed in Almodóvar even when people around her considered him crazy and obscene. But, she says, they owe nothing to each other (this in reference to their 20-year cinematic separation that momentarily ended when they worked together in 2006 on Volver). It’s clear that even when working relationship deteriorate, respect and appreciation for a collaborator’s talent is paramount.
Brother and producer Agustin Almodóvar recounts how he accidentally entered the film industry by helping Pedro on this film. Because of the success of Women on the Verge, Agustin and Pedro were able to cement their production company, El Deso, and work with fewer constraints from that point forward.
Lastly, film scholar and programmer Richard Peña recalls his anxious search for the perfect opening night film in his first year as the director of the New York Film Festival. He attend a secret screening of Women on the Verge, and selected the film, thus allowing Almodóvar some much-deserved exposure in the U.S.
The diverse perspectives on the creation and legacy on the film speak to its cultural legacy, which is reinforced in an essay by noted Spanish writer Elvira Lindo. She describes how Almodóvar’s vision changed not only Spanish cultural consciousness at a transitional time, but even the way people dressed and carried themselves.
Almodóvar never overlooks anything that appear in his frame, and his use of objects as narrative devices is something to behold. The devil’s in the details. Good moviemakers know that, and apply that wisdom to both their overall visual aesthetic and conceptual ideas. Women on the Verge is not what you might call a realist film, and so plays with color in an expressionistic manner. But the process of carefully selecting a color palette, both in costumes and settings, happens in every production. Try to marry every single part of your film to its core thesis. MM
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD February 21, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection.