Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Pepas’s lover, Iván, leaves her and she tries to contact him to find out why he’s left. In her search for Iván, she confronts his wife and son, who are as clueless as she is. Meanwhile; Candela, her friend, is afraid the police might be looking for her because of her ex-boyfriend, a muslim terrorist, and his criminal activities. As the plot develops, it is revealed that everyone’s lives are more intertwined than they could have ever expected.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spanish: Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios) is a 1988 Spanish black comedy-drama film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas. The film brought Almodóvar to widespread international attention: it was nominated for the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won five Goya Awards including Best Film and Best Actress in a Leading Role for Maura.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

The actual Spanish title refers to an ataque de nervios, which is not actually well translated as “nervous breakdown” (crisis nerviosa). Ataques de nervios are culture-bound psychological phenomena during which the individual, most often female, displays dramatic outpouring of negative emotions, bodily gestures, occasional falling to the ground, and fainting, often in response to receiving disturbing news or witnessing or participating in an upsetting event. Historically, this condition has been associated with hysteria and more recently in the scientific literature with post-traumatic stress and panic attacks.

Film Review for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The astounding Rossy de Palma incarnates what this musical should have been. At a post-show Q and A, she explained what it had been like playing the down-in-the-mouth virgin in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1988 movie. Puzzling at first, as she spent hours being comatose. Then suddenly galvanising. As she dozed, she was told to act having giant orgasms. “I am,” she announced, “still having the orgasm.”

Bartlett Sher’s production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has a lot to live up to. Not just De Palma’s gutsy glee, but a large political intention. Almodóvar’s story of women liberating themselves after being messed about by men is in part a tribute to the women who he thinks rescued Spain from the civil war. It has an artful overlay: the gazpacho laced with sleeping pills that sends characters to the land of Nod is an elixir, like the magical juice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) - Carmen Maura

The movie is big enough to carry these claims. The show is not. A slimmed-down version of the musical put on five years ago in the States, which Sher described as “the most expensive out-of-town try-out in theatre history”, it is elegant and edgy rather than barmy and bumptious. Too agreeable to be really disturbing. What’s on the other side of the verge does not look or sound sufficiently momentous.

Peter Mumford’s lighting design sends a beautiful acidity – showers of citrus yellow orange and pink – over the action; David Yazbek’s accomplished music – no castanets – a thrumming salsa rhythm running through the action. Much of the detail of the movie is replicated, though surely everyone will miss the madre of all taxis, equipped with mags to rent and a notice “Gracias por fumar”. It is represented here, in a lurch into physical theatre, by a couple of chairs.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Tamsin Greig, one of the most subtle of actresses, is appealing less because of her singing voice than because of her extraordinary ability to unravel in an instant from wiry intelligence to wobbling despair. Anna Skellern provides a terrific turn in a telephone song – yelping and sobbing – as she pinballs around the stage.

Yet only one number is transcendent. Invisible is mighty, thanks to Yazbek’s lyrics. It is surely the first song to be written about what happens to middle-aged women: “tangible not visible like gravity or the air”. Haydn Gwynne’s delivery, a caressing foghorn, makes it a Send in the Clowns moment: utterly arresting, and sure to be reinterpreted again and again. In a clever irony, Invisible is put in the mouth of someone who sticks out like a sore thumb. Gwynne is the ex-wife cuckoo enough not to know that wearing clothes (huge Jackie O glasses, candy-pink boxy suits, these costumes are excellent) that date from 20 years earlier make her look cuckoo. For a moment you see the depth of Almodóvar’s vision.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Movie Poster (1988)

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano, María Barranco, Rossy de Palma, Kiti Mánver, Guillermo Montesinos, Eduardo Calvo, Loles León
Screenplay by: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematography by: José Luis Alcaine
Film Editing by: José Salcedo
Costume Design by: José María de Cossío
Set Decoration by: Félix Murcia
Music by: Bernardo Bonezzi
Distributed by: Laurenfilm S.A
Release Date: March 25, 1988