Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) is probably Pedro Almodovar’s most completely accessible film — certainly it’s one of his funniest and most popular works. More comedic in tone than the films that precede it — the dark (sometimes pitch black) side of his world is here only suggested. It’s the perfect film for anyone new to the filmmaker’s work. Yet it’s also a film that is very much grounded in the earlier films.
In a sense, its very existence is a kind of in-joke — a loose (even free) variation on Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice (1930) that’s built around Carmen Maura’s role as Pepa. What’s the in-joke? The character that Maura plays in Almodovar’s The Law of Desire (1987) appears in that film in a stage production of The Human Voice. In Women on the Verge, she’s living a wildly comic version of the same material. As with virtually all Almodovar films, the plot is an outrageous soap opera taken to somewhere beyond extreme and played out in wondrous, eccentric, vibrantly colored settings.
In this case, we have the wronged woman (Maura) trying vainly to have one last conversation with Ivan (Fernando Guillen), the man who dumped her. Maura’s friend, Candela (Maria Barranco), arrives — fleeing from the police because her latest boyfriend has just been arrested as a Shiite terrorist. Throw in Ivan’s son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), and Carlos’ fiancee (Rossy de Palma), Ivan’s spectacularly unbalanced ex-wife (Julieta Serrano), the cops, a Jehovah’s Witness landlady, a small fire, phones being ripped out, objects flying out of windows and a large pitcher of barbiturate-laced gazpacho — and you have one of the wildest and most satisfying comedies imaginable.