The strangest things can happen suddenly.
Whenever I start lamenting the lack of good roles for women in mainstream Hollywood movies — something that I do every year save for those three months that the awards-bait movies are released — I need to remind myself to watch the work of writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. His films, many of which tell stories of richly drawn, complicated women, positively explode with color and life. They are funny and tragic, absurd and melodramatic. There is only one Almodóvar, and his films feel like the work of no one else. For this, we film fans are very fortunate.
Though his handful of films had found an audience in his native Spain, Almodóvar’s 1988 comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was his international breakthrough. Not only was it nominated for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award, but went on to gross ten times its budget in the U.S. and won multiple Goya Awards (the Spanish version of the Oscars), including Best Picture and Best Actress for its star, Carmen Maura, a regular of Almodóvar’s work. It now becomes the second of the director’s work to join the prestigious Criterion Collection, following the 2014 release of his controversial BDSM comedy Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!.
Maura plays Pepa, a voiceover actress in the midst of a serious depression because she’s just been left by her married lover Iván (Fernando Guillén). She is visited by her friend Candela (María Barranco), who has her own problems having been disavowed by her family for becoming a model and is now embroiled in a legitimate terrorist plot, as well as a young man named Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his fiancé. Carlos is there to look at Pepa’s apartment and turns out to be Iván’s son from yet another lover, meaning Iván’s current wife hates both Carlos and Pepa. Eventually, there are some police and a gun and some drugged gazpacho. Never a dull minute.
Like so many of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is about, as the title might suggest, a woman in crisis who finds a strength not that she didn’t know she had, but which rather was there all along and is unique to that character. Watching Pepa transform from a woman downing sleeping pills to get through the night into a woman who is in complete control of a potentially disastrous (not to mention dangerous) situation by film’s end is a true joy, mostly because the performance by Carmen Maura never lets us doubt the character’s arc for a single second. She is strong, sexy, funny and totally human, a sort of earlier incarnation of Penelope Cruz’s character in Almodóvar’s later (and similarly delightful) Volver. Have I mentioned that this movie is a treasure?
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown presents the movie in a stunning new 2K 1080p transfer in its original 1.85:1 widescreen. What’s most appealing about the new transfer is the way the colors pop; Almodóvar is a filmmaker always interested in the use of bright, poppy colors, making his movies particularly well-suited for HD. Detail is good and the image is clean to the point of looking brand new. Two lossless audio tracks are offered: a 5.1 surround mix and a 2.0 stereo mix, both in Spanish with optional English subtitles. Because it’s a dialogue-driven film, you’d be fine with the stereo mix but the 5.1 track does open things up a little bit. Ultimately, either is an acceptable choice.
The supplemental features included on Criterion’s disc aren’t as exhaustive or illuminating as some of their other sets, consisting almost entirely of brand new video interviews with Almodóvar, star Carmen Maura, producer Agustin Almodóvar and film scholar Richard Pena, who talks about some of the regular Almodóvar motifs found in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and how it fits into the filmmaker’s larger body of work. Also included is the original trailer for the U.S. release, as well as Criterion’s usual booklet including an essay by film critic Elvira Linda.
While I wish that maybe a greater variety of extras had been included, it’s really Criterion’s amazing new transfer of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that provides the selling point to either buy the disc for the first time or upgrade your old DVD. The movie has never looked better, and even now almost 30 years after its release really hasn’t aged at all. Almodóvar is a filmmaker who loves his characters, who loves to write for women and who loves to constantly surprise his audience. This is a delightful spin on a conventional soap opera with a stellar lead performance by Carmen Maura. It’s a welcome addition to the Criterion Collection. More Almodóvar, please.
Another Almodóvar delight.