In 1988, when Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown made its debut, Spain had debuted its first decade of democracy, the socialist party had been in power since 1982, and I was a twenty-six-year-old radio personality. The entire country seemed brand-new, and the explosion of color and thirst for freedom were so intense that even its oldest citizens made an effort to update their outlook. Madrid brimmed with young men and women abandoning the coarse aesthetic of anti-Franco activists to look like members of modern metropolitan tribes. The city opened to nightlife like a flower, and brazen self-assurance took over spaces once occupied by fear. Looking back on it now, we can see how lucky we were to be part of that unique moment: there was no such thing as political correctness or self-censorship—in those days, boldness and recklessness reigned. This scene was as dangerous as it was fun; the most prudent or the luckiest among us survived, but many innocent lives were lost along the way. In the eighties, heroin claimed many of Spain’s youths in urban and rural areas alike, but the freedom offered by the big city in particular lent itself to roaming around at night and frequenting places where anything could happen. If you wanted to keep up with the times, you had to give in to temptation. Some artists began to create original and varied bodies of work, while the work of others got trapped in the clouds of smoke that filled city bars and hasn’t stood the test of time. Madrid was the nerve center of this 1980s youth movement, christened La Movida, which was ultimately more about pleasure seeking than it was about building a cultural movement.
This was the Spain from which the beginnings of Pedro Almodóvar’s talent emerged. It is important to keep this in mind, because his early career cannot be understood outside of the context of the urgent claim staked for audacity and personal freedom in the wake of a period that was understandably dominated by the struggle against Franco. Even all these years later, when I watch certain early Almodóvar films—Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Law of Desire (1987)—I can vividly recall the excitement they first stirred in me, and the collective commotion they caused. Their plots dealt with love, desire, vice, betrayal, homosexuality, cross-dressing, and new kinds of families, united by love rather than the Catholic Church, in a way that had never been seen before. And the director didn’t judge his characters. His position, rather than simply accepting what had previously been seen as immoral, was explicitly amoral—a playful and understanding gaze directed at impulsive fauna, especially women, who in his films are driven purely by emotion, casting logic and prudence aside.
How wonderful it was to take in that spectacle and feel like a part of it, to leave the theater with the sense that you could satisfy your desires and not have to feel guilty, strange, or inappropriate. It is difficult for young viewers today to understand just how subversive Almodóvar was at the time, how the laughter his comedies provoked had within it an iron determination not to give up even one of the freedoms that had been gained. Because of this, I believe that his films, whether or not they intended to communicate a political message, contributed to the expansion of our individual rights, especially those of women and gay people—which is to say, those most intimately connected with lifestyle choices—and gave visibility to difference, to the unconventional people among us who until then had remained hidden.
I’ve written on more than one occasion that Pedro Almodóvar changed the way I dressed. The way we dressed. Especially the women, who went from being good leftist girls in the uniform of jeans and plaid shirts to wearing miniskirts and dramatic makeup and dyeing our hair. I see myself now in photos from back then and realize I was wearing the costume of that time more than I knew; something in me had been transformed when I immersed myself in Almodóvar’s universe. From Pepi, Luci, Bom and Law of Desire to Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), we let ourselves be swept away in the wave of color Almodóvar presented in each of his films. His premieres, too, were pageants of extravagance, performances in and of themselves. Pedro imposed his style on his actresses, and, in his hands, they were transformed both on and off the screen.
We were many, the young women who adopted this freer and more colorful, more playful new style. After just a few films, Almodóvar’s dialogue, and the unusual way his female characters deliver it, had made its way into the popular language, the way certain phrases from Shakespeare or Cervantes have become things that everyone says. It wasn’t just the lines themselves but also the hilarious naïveté with which they are delivered—as when the building attendant played by Chus Lampreave in Women on the Verge says, “Ya me gustaría a mí mentir, pero eso el lo malo de las Testigas, que no podemos” (I’d like to lie, but that’s the bad thing about Testigas: we can’t). The effect of calling female Jehovah’s Witnesses “Testigas” is impossible to translate but wildly comic. But we should not forget another thing that has contributed to the originality of this filmmaker from the very beginning: Almodóvar has never turned his back on the rural world he comes from. On the contrary, Spanish grandmothers and mothers are present as secondary but essential characters in all the director’s story lines, conveying a truth that was obvious to all of us who had moved to the city from small towns: older women are much better at embracing a new era than their male counterparts. That generosity, that capacity of older women to adapt to modern times, is one of the most realistic aspects of his work, and one of the most moving. It is no coincidence that the director’s own mother appears in several of his films, including Women on the Verge, adding such a refreshing spontaneity that viewers began to eagerly await her cameos.
Almodóvar’s earliest films, considered experimental in part because they were made on very small budgets, did come to define a unique style, a way of telling stories that was unlike anything we had ever seen before. As his career progressed, however, the attentive viewer noticed more professionalism in his cockiness, technical skill overtaking his amateurism, and elements of cinema culture beginning to inform what had previously been fed only by what he could observe on the street.
By the time Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown arrived in theaters, our director from La Mancha already had a large audience eagerly awaiting his next film. In my opinion, this is the movie that established him as the great filmmaker he is known as today. With this comedy, he announced to us that he had no intention of confining himself to a single genre, or of being held captive by the kinds of archetypally urban characters that had brought him success before. This time, Almodóvar chose to make a film that drew on a different tradition, an American one: screwball comedy, a genre that in the 1930s had captivated audiences hungry for movies offering an escape from the misery around them. The screwball comedy is governed by a crazy rhythm: its characters rush around as if driven by uncontrollable impulses, and only at the very end do they seem to find anything like calm.
Although I once heard Almodóvar say that his script for Women on the Verge was inspired by Jean Cocteau’s monologue play The Human Voice, humor clearly won out over tragedy when he sat down to write. In any event, as in all good comedy, his characters take their misfortunes seriously and don’t try to be funny, which enhances the comic effect. Pepa, our heroine scorned (played masterfully by Carmen Maura), is distraught by the drama of her abandonment throughout the movie. She’s not the only one who suffers, though. In this outrageous comedy, everyone loses their mind over love: the deranged ex-wife, the friend of Pepa’s who is taken advantage of by a Shiite terrorist, the feminist lawyer desperate for her new lover to leave his past behind him once and for all. The men, as is often the case in Almodóvar’s films, are cowards who shirk their responsibilities—if they offer any explanations for their behavior, it is only because the women force them to stand up and face the music. Then, of course, there is the magical cast of minor characters that sets the tone for the film: the doorwoman in Pepa’s building, the taxi driver, the receptionist at the dubbing studio where Pepa and her lover, Iván, work. The pithy, absurdly funny lines delivered by those secondary characters are often the ones that stick in the viewer’s memory until they work their way into everyday speech.
I referred above to the important role Almodóvar’s work played in the recognition of individual liberties in Spain, which had barely been considered by the anti-Franco political parties immediately following the end of the regime, as their focus was primarily on establishing a new democratic system. But we should not overlook the pure artistic impact that these comedies had on the new cinema then coming into being. The Spanish tend to view Almodóvar as something so much ours—to see him as a family member, almost—that it surprises us to observe how well his films, which often contain very specific local references, resonate internationally. He is understood and admired outside of Spain, though perhaps in a different way than we—who recognize in his dialogue phrases etched in our minds from childhood, and who have different associations with the landscape across which Don Quixote of La Mancha and his squire Sancho are said to have wandered—love and admire him.
Almodóvar’s cinema is as local as it is universal. When his women speak Spanish, they are speaking the language that the filmmaker carries in his heart, as with Fellini, another incomparable director. Pedro’s characters express themselves in the tongue spoken by the women who surrounded him as a child, and whom he observed more carefully, I suspect, than he did the men. Though nearly all the action in Women on the Verge takes place in a theatrical space and has the unreal air of the old comedies by Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, or George Cukor, the female characters are tied to their homeland by the way they speak, their turns of phrase, and the expressiveness that characterizes Mediterranean women. An unmistakable stamp the director leaves on all of his films is their brilliant combination of rural and urban language, which gives them much of their grace and originality.
Watching Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, we don’t have a chance to think. We laugh, we smile, we look on in bewilderment as characters enter and leave the scene, but we don’t get a moment’s pause until the very end, when Pepa sits on one of the chaises on her terrace, looks out over the gorgeous, theatrical Madrid skyline, and decides that this is her place in the world, that she’s going to stay in her apartment, that the future stretching before her is bright and she’s not going to waste it. “I’m not going to sublet after all,” she says, “I love the view.” For us, those final words represent peace at last after so much furor, and Pepa’s serenity is contagious. As she gazes as if for the first time at a sky painted in colors from Velázquez‘s palette, we too glimpse a future of new loves to wash away the bitter taste of rejection.
Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and Anna Thorngate