Pedro Almodóvar’s film Women on the Verge of the Nervous Breakdown was released in 1988. If you are making a comedy about women’s nervous breakdowns or “ataque de nervios” (which is a more exact term to expresses what the film tells about, so I will use this term below), you have to walk a very thin line to look at a serious topic, and be funny, without hurting anyone’s feelings. Perhaps Spain of the post-Franco era was exactly where such a film was possible. People had just gained freedom from taboos and restrictions, as well as the seriousness of the Francoist regime. I’d like to include here a direct quote by Almodóvar describing the atmosphere in the country where Women on the Verge of the Nervous Breakdown was created and the city where it’s set:
‘In 1987, when I wrote the script of Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, Madrid was a party. Democracy had arrived in our country a decade before, and the most playful, hedonistic side of the Spanish character had exploded… I had the good fortune to be young at that time. My films from the ’80s reflect that explosion of freedom which illuminated everything. You could say that even grief was joyful.’
So, yes, this film is a comedy, and comedy is often the most convenient and convincing way to talk about serious topics.
The films central character, Pepa (played by the brilliant Carmen Maura) has recently been left by her lover, Ivan (Fernando Guillén). Pepa is desperately trying to reach Ivan, but she is unable to do so even on the phone. Similarly to Jean Cocteau’s play Human Voice, which is one of the inspirations for the film, we never get the full dialogue between this couple. The other side of the conversation exists, but usually only as a recording. The conversations are only possible via voicemail machine—Ivan leaves a message, Pepa replies as if he could hear her, then Pepa leaves a message waiting in vain for Ivan to call. As a result of Pepa’s frustration, the red phone is being broken repeatedly, and the voicemail machine is thrown out of the window.
Pepa and Ivan both are voice-over artists. In the scene at the beginning of the film, Pepa is late to work, so Ivan is doing his part alone, with silence where Pepa’s voice should be. Later there is a reversed scene where Pepa is doing her part, answering Ivan’s part of the dialogue, filling the gaps. This is how Pepa and Ivan interact throughout the film—they constantly miss each other, the dialogue never takes place, they don’t meet until the final scene when it’s already too late for Pepa.
The film Pepa and Ivan are dubbing is the 1954 film Johnny Guitar, more precisely we see a scene where Johnny is asking Vienna to lie by telling him that she always loved him and was waiting for him all those years. She says it, so does Pepa with tears in her eyes and collapses. In both cases, probably the most heartbreaking is that they are not lying—they are, in fact, pretending to be pretending.
It is very common that after break-up women are encouraged not to show their real feelings. Instead, they must keep their head up, however frustrated and empty they may feel at the moment. In Johnny Guitar, Vienna has to act strong. She even has to act like a man to survive in the man’s world and to survive her break-up with Johnny. It is often considered humiliating for a woman if she shows how devastated she is—this is what the society usually demands from a woman if she wants to be respected. She must be strong! Yes, it can bring her respect but at the same time drains all the energy she has.
Pepa is being reproved for her behavior too, but she is too stressed out to care. All that she can think about is to keep Ivan at any cost. Although, in a sense, Pepa has tried to act strong. She knew about Ivan’s affairs with other women but looked the other way, only demanded from him not to lie about the main thing—to tell her if he would ever stop loving her. Finally, it happened, and she turned out to be ‘weaker’ than she thought.
Now, after getting confirmation that she’s pregnant, it’s her last chance to make Ivan stay. She tries to talk to him and even makes a desperate decision to serve him with gazpacho spiced with the whole package of barbiturates. This is her ultimate moment of ataque de nervios.
One of my favorite scenes is that with a burning bed, when Pepa accidentally throws a lit match on the bed, causing a fire. This is a perfect picture of Pepa’s nearly destructive passion. When she sees the fire, Pepa is fascinated at first, until the smoke starts suffocating her. Only after that does she bring water and put the fire out.
As the title hints, Pepa is not the only woman in this film on the verge of the nervous breakdown. There is Lucia (Julieta Serrano), Ivan’s ex-wife whom he left when she was pregnant and was eventually put in a mental facility after giving birth to their son, Carlos. But recently, after recognizing Ivan’s voice on TV, she remembered him, pretended to be cured so that the doctors would release her. Though, as she admits, she’s not cured at all.
Thus, Lucia is another ‘victim’ of Ivan’s irresponsibility: he left her pregnant. The same thing is happening now with Pepa.
Lucia is probably the quirkiest character among all the women in the film. She and her parents, as well as her background storyline of insanity, are almost directly copied from soap opera. If we can say that the whole film is made with camp aesthetics, Lucia is the incarnation of camp, and the quirkiness of her character perfectly justifies it. She wears old-fashioned clothes, wigs, too-heavy make-up, her outfit, as well as behavior is always ‘too much’. Her panther printed outfit at the beginning (to me, the expression of her uncontrollable wild passion) and baby pink outfit at the end—something that makes her look childish and vulnerable; her reply to her father after hearing from him that she looks stunning: ‘you lie so well, I’ve always loved you for that’; all this makes an impression that she perfectly distinguishes true and false, but chooses illusion over reality.
At the end of the film, Pepa and Lucia are left face to face, with gazpacho and guns. Pepa knows how to prepare it and Ivan apparently loves how she prepares it, but if you drink this one, it’ll make you fall asleep. Everyone has drunk it except Lucia and Pepa. These two are not going to fall asleep anymore. One of them needs to be awake to kill Ivan, another—to save him.
What about men in this film? The central male character is Ivan, he has created all this mess. Ivan asked Pepa to prepare his suitcase as he is going on a journey. Pepa is sure that he’s leaving with another woman because he is simply unable to travel alone. She thinks it’s Lucia, while Lucia thinks Ivan is leaving with Pepa. In reality, of course, it’s someone else.
I’ve already mentioned that Ivan is a voice-over artist. The very first time we see him is in Pepa’s dream. He is walking outside the oriental harem with the microphone in the hand, flirting by throwing some cliché remarks to women of various nationalities, races, colors, or occupations he meets on his way. Apparently, this is how Pepa sees him, and this is who Ivan actually is.
He is mainly associated with his voice. Lucia couldn’t even recognize him until she heard his voice telling another woman that he loved her. It reminded her of the many times he had told her those exact same words.
Ivan always sounds loving and caring on the phone messages that he leaves for Pepa. As if he just left for a couple of hours and will be back soon. Ivan is warm towards his partners, especially ex-partners, but the problem is that this is only a façade. In essence, Ivan is like a fantom, not really existing, only his words and his voice exist.
Then there is his son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), who is caring towards Pepa when he learns that she’s pregnant, towards Candela whom he likes, but at the same time, he ignores his girlfriend Marisa (Rossy de Palma). Is he like his father? Or, is he a victim too of old-fashioned stereotypes and established relationships between sexes, which have made him a nice but insecure young man. His relationship with his girlfriend Marisa seems to be possible only because of their insecurities. As soon as they get some freedom, this couple is not possible anymore.
Eventually, he is attracted to Pepa’s young friend, Candela (Maria Barranco). Candela is another woman with ataque de nervios. After finding out that her lover is one of the recently arrested terrorists, she’s afraid of being arrested if the police find out about her non-willful involvement. She’s in panic, to the point that she tries to kill herself by jumping from Pepa’s terrace—this is her moment of ataque de nervios. And yet, Candela is more funny than tragic. Everything ends well for her, she even finds a new boyfriend—Carlos and we can hope she’ll be lucky this time.
Here’s an interesting thing about Pepa. The opening scene of the film shows Pepa’s terrace full of plants, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. Her offscreen voice explains this unusual company on the terrace of the modern multi-story building—Pepa compares herself to Noah trying to rescue pairs of all the animals. Rescuing couples seems to be Pepa’s talent, but unfortunately, she cannot succeed in rescuing her own couple.
Marisa and Carlos are, in my opinion, rescued as well, only in this case by splitting up. Marisa (Carlos’ virgin girlfriend), who out of boredom and being ignored by Carlos, drinks gazpacho with barbiturates and sleeps for the most of the film—in the meantime losing her boyfriend and her virginity (in a dream) as well. Marisa and Carlos are quite a stereotypical couple consisting of an insecure man and domineering woman. Carlos’s insecurity is probably caused by him being ignored (even though not deliberately) by his parents. His mother hates him because he reminds her of her time with Ivan. As for his father, Carlos didn’t even know him until he was grown up. Now he meets Pepa, about whom he has heard, and apparently likes her. In Pepa he finds some kind of substitute of a loving mother—Pepa loves him because “he’s the only good thing Ivan has made in his entire life.”
So instead of Marisa and Carlos, there is now Candela and Carlos (and who knows, maybe a phone company guy will be a good pair for Marisa, at least Pepa thinks so.)
There is another male character in the film who deserves a special mentioning—Mambo Taxi driver. He seems to be a substitute for Almodóvar himself. Even his appearance resembles Almodóvar. This guy has equipped his taxi with everything that a woman may need, tries to make it as comfortable for women as possible. He has all kinds of music (though prefers mambo as it fits the panther printed interior best), he has tissues, magazines, lots of different stuff a woman might ask for. He is very disappointed when he fails to provide the eye drops to hide the traces of crying, but next time Pepa gets in his taxi, he’s got it.
There is one of the inverted cliché phrases, which are quite numerous in the film, spoken by the taxi driver: “No lady’s dangerous if you know how to handle her.” Immediately after his words, Lucia, who they are pursuing, takes out the gun and starts shooting. Women actually can be more dangerous than a man can even imagine.
Another cliché phrase, this time uttered by Pepa: “Learning mechanics is easier than learning male psychology. You can figure out a bike, but you can never figure out a man.” Isn’t it what usually men say about women?
Strength of women
Now, let’s return to strong women. There is a stereotypically strong female character in the film—a feminist lawyer Paulina Morales (Kiti Manver). She is a character who most resembles Vienna from the beginning of Johnny Guitar—acting more like a man then actual men do. She criticizes Pepa for crying over a man (even though she’s going on a journey with that same man). Paulina knows that Ivan is weak; even he agrees. It seems like such a convenient position to be weak, depending on the wisdom and strength of a person beside you. One can afford to be irresponsible when everyone accepts him as weak. But even this strong woman ‘sometimes likes to be wrong.’ In hypermasculine cultures, women are usually depicted as weak and subtle. Though in reality, they don’t usually have a right to be weak.
Pepa is the one who saves Ivan in the end. What she was trying to achieve the whole time becomes easily achievable now—Ivan offers her to get together again, not even thinking twice about his new lover with whom he was going on a journey literally a minute ago. But it’s Pepa’s turn to say “no”. She has already managed to cope with her desperation: her ataque de nervios is over. She rescued the life of the man she loved and is able to let him go now.
Pepa returns home, puts her high heel shoes on to protect herself against broken glass and wakes up Marisa who, after losing virginity has begun to understand Pepa better. The film ends with two women on the terrace chatting about some random stuff. They are able to continue their lives without being dependent on anyone.
Who and what defines what the strength is in each particular situation? In this film, as it should be in real life, Almodóvar gives women the full right to be weak, the right to have a nervous breakdown when things become unbearable, without being judged and humiliated. Everyone gets ataque de nervios at some point, and sometimes it is the only way to deal with the desperation and continue looking ahead.