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By the start of 1988, Pedro Almodóvar had already made six features, including at least one candidate for his all-time best (1987's Law of Desire), but it wasn't until the fall of that year that the world took notice of his singular gifts. That year's Venice Film Festival saw the debut, outside of the director's native Spain, of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which was not by any means the first Almodóvar picture to hit big on the festival circuit, but was his first massive commercial hit internationally, as well as the film with which critics outside of Spain began to regard him as a singular creative force, rather than the promising, developing newbie of Law of Desire and 1986 Matador.
I might poke at that and take some exceptions with it (Women on the Verge is a marvel, but Law of Desire is both better and more characteristic), but it's hard to feel very bad that something so utterly delightful was such a rousing success, or that it did so much to cement the concept of "un film de Almodóvar" for so long. Even as I then turn right around and propose that maybe the reason this was the film is because it feels a little... how shall I say... "squarer" than his earlier films? The thing is, Almodóvar has always been a bit of a provocateur, and he's generally at his very best when he's doing some very fucked-up things. I haven't seen all 20 of his films, but of the ones I have, Women on the Verge is the close to being the least fucked-up, and that goes doubly if we're only counting his early stuff, when he was still playing the role of enfant terrible in the burgeoning Madrid countercultural art movement that flourished in the wake of Franco's 1975 death. It is, indeed, downright friendly, fashioning itself as a rather classically-built farce about sexual relationships between neurotic women and horrible men. You can imagine taking your grandma to this movie, assuming she's a bit hip. And that made it an awfully good fit for worldwide arthouse audiences that were starting to grow just a wee smidgen more adventurous as the 1980s drew to a close.
It still has some edge: it's a suicidally-tinged melodrama repurposed as a bouncy comedy, with a tightly-coiled script that keeps bringing back lines, concepts, and even just important keywords in new settings, giving the rocket-fast 89-minute film an even sleeker shape than its brief running time suggests. It's a film about things sprawling wildly out of control over the course of one very irritating day in the life of TV commercial actor and voiceover artist Pepa (Carmen Maura, the director's first muse, in their last collaboration until 2006's Volver), but it is itself a film whose story has been microscopically detailed so perfectly it feels like watching a jigsaw puzzle being put together without a single hesitation by somebody wearing a blindfold. What looks for all the world like a throwaway detail turns out to be central to the plot, running gags are subtly reframed every time they appear to be more and more crucial to resolving the conflict, and the whole thing is so snug that by the time we get to the late scene that shows multiple people crossing through one small patch of sidewalk so precisely that none of them notice each other, it doesn't feel like a bravura gesture so much as the thing that this movie has kind of always been doing.
And then, once it's gone through a whirlwind of machinations, the film rewards us with a very sweet bonding moment between the film's best-defined major character and its least-defined major character, in the process confirming a plot point that either pats us on the head for being very good & attentive viewers, or gives us the great pleasure of being able to revisit the entire story with critical new information that changes everything we just saw. I would willingly go into none of this, but I will say that it's awfully audacious in an awfully quiet way that Almodóvar takes the unabashedly sexist concept of the title (which is not, in Spanish, "nervous breakdown", but something closer to the English "hysteria", with similarly gendered connotations, and additional fainting), appears to treat it quite sincerely in the tale of a woman so angry that her lover has abandoned her without a word that she passes out from overwhelming sadness, and then reveals at the end that something quite entirely different was happening all the time.
It's also at least slightly audacious what he does the material of a heated melodrama, with not one but two potentially suicidal women in the form of Pepa and her annoying younger friend Candela (María Barranco), who is concerned that she'll come under police suspicion for having accidentally slept with a Shiite terrorist, as well as a convoluted series of shocking coincidences whereby Pepa's ex-lover Ivan's (Fernando Guillén) son Carlos (Antonio Banderas) ends up in Pepa's apartment just exactly at the same time that Carlos's mother Lucía (Julieta Serrano) has come hunting for Pepa in the belief that she's the woman Ivan is currently shacking up with. It's pure soap-operatic excess, treated with a jaunty light comic tone that never flags even when Candela attempts to kill herself by jumping off a balcony, and that's kind of the Almodóvar touch, mixing around genres and ending up with something that finds joyful frivolity in the teeth of tragedy. That's not as extraordinary as some of the director's other genre mash-ups - absurdly comic melodramas were not a recent invention in 1988 - but the deep, abiding willingness to make light of absolutely everything is still pretty striking, and clearly what stood out to audiences of the late '80s, who had very few opportunities to see this kind of mix of dark comedy with slapstick.
It is, in brief, a singularly joyful movie, and it is so before the plot starts. Fuck, it is so before the movie starts, beginning with a delightful opening credits sequence that stands out as one of the very best in the career of a director for whom wonderful opening credits sequences are as much one of his trademarks as anything else: as the dreamily melancholic "Soy infeliz" by midcentury recording artist Lola Beltrán drifts across the soundtrack, we're treated to the list of the cast and crew heads done in as a lovely découpage of scraps that appear to come from a midcentury women's magazine. The effect is kind of like a series of ransom notes pasted together by an artistically-inclined '50s housewife.
Then we get to the movie, but not the plot yet: first we get to see this image:
It will be somewhat confirmed later on that this is, in fact, a model, and not just a superbly unconvincing special effect, but that's ambiguous at first, and that starts off pretty much everything: the film's infatuation with the artifice of filmmaking (there is some wonderfully sly and weepy material concerning Pepa's realisation that Ivan's warm words of love are just him parroting the romantic dramas he and she both overdub), and its bizarre, charming sense of visual humor (that plant!), and its use of strong, bold colors.
Oh! the colors in Women on the Verge! That could be an essay unto itself, and here I am, trying to cram it all into the conclusion. I will never commit myself to a fool's claim like "such and such a film has the best use of color in any Almodóvar film"; he is one of the most color-attentive directors alive in the world. But Women on the Verge tempts me to make that claim: the film is a brazen frenzy of bright colors, wedged into compositions sometimes for the humor of it (Ivan appearing in bright blue distortion, Lucía as a disembodied head in a yellow and grey field), sometimes in a way that seems like it might be driving at something narratively significant (the phone that is the source of all Pepa's pain is bright right - the color of passion, and violence), sometimes apparently for no reason other than the sheer vitality and joy of color when the appear in all their bold glory onscreen, such as in this totally irrelevant shot, still from the very beginning of the film, that worships the primary colors and the sublimity of a yellow ashtray's profound yellowness:
It is a film whose overwhelming liveliness provides an enthusiastic, ebullient rebuke to the despair of its characters, and it is perhaps Almodóvar's most celebratory work. Not his most insightful - other than Pepa, it has a problem particularising its somewhat clichéd ensemble. And not his most perfect - the film is all about madcap, whirligig energy, and it sags a fair amount during its middle third. But it is the single instance where his playfully campy visual style, his sick sense of humor, and his eager generosity towards his characters combine to the highest overall average of energy and happiness, and while I love other Almodóvar films more deeply, this is the one to reach for on a rainy day. Or just because.