Films for Class: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

women-on-verge-almodovar-19763Who could think of a better near-opening for a Pedro Almodovar film than a delirious scene of a Spanish dubbing of that holiest of holy cinephiliac films Johnny Guitar? (Nicholas Ray being, with the possible exception of the more obvious Douglas Sirk, the largest costume in Almodovar’s wide-open carnival-closet of cross-national cinema). Even better, the sequence actually adds to Ray’s film rather than merely name-checking. It extends Ray’s emphatically neurotic melodrama to new cultures and across eons while teasing out its fiendish gender complications and tragicomic compulsions even more overtly than Ray, a rebel trapped in the Hollywood closet, was able to do.  Almodovar’s mission statement is already clear: in the arena of melodrama, a purgative for your cynical ways.

Naturally, Almodovar’s sometimes-spellbinding concoction is more than merely melodrama, limning a feverish and frenzied dose of scrappy and still-kicking screwball comedy for a witch’s brew that is equal parts ego-tastic hubris and humble low-class motor-mouthed energy. Vibrant but with undercurrents of social abjection sublimated but not eliminated beneath social decorum, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is probably best described as a farcical treatment of the melodrama of the unknown woman genre (insofar as one can describe Almodovar’s whirlwind of inspirations and feelings without befriending a dictionary of German compound words). But Almodovar’s love for film never gets lost in the kind of morass of references meant solely for the cultural elite to affect laughs in display of sympathy with respectable, canonical culture, a la Woody Allen. Almodovar’s films are not trapped in the mire of the past, bulwarks against the passage of time. Instead, they use the past, revitalize it, weaponize it, rather than standing in awe of it or bowing before it.

Aware of the drive to self-police and mold the self into the most acquiescent, timid version of our being, a film like Women exists in a rebelliously outward emotional state of physical movement (exaggerated gesticulations and comic stumbles) and lurid, even garish colors that externalize emotion.  Almodovar provides the outward self that we both mutate into canvases of self-expression and weaponize to restrict ourselves to packaged and socially acceptable facisimiles of our throbbing internal desires. That an Almodovar film is gorgeous is not something I need to climb the mountains to scream to the public, but he remains as content as ever to fold blasphemy into transcendence through super-saturated colors that coax out inner-emotions. Always wanting to have it both ways, he swims upstream to greater self-realization while going against the grain to fly downstream straight into…well, in Almodovar’s case, it’s probably into someone’s pants in a gesture of commiseration with and appreciation of everyone’s sexual inconsistencies and proclivities that are both life-affirming and difficult to admit.

And that’s all without the interplay of melodrama, wry comedy, camp, and kitsch that swirl around our preconceptions not only of how the narrative will flow but, crucially, how we are supposed to feel about scenes. When main character Pepa (Carmen Maura) mixes enough sleeping pills into her drink to kill herself, increasingly demented farcical circumstances pile on as if to force-feed her a classical Hollywood plotline to distract her from her depression, film serving as an almost literal source of bellowing life. Playing the angel and the devil on your shoulder, one scene reshapes a suicide attempt into an approximate of a frantic physical routine out of a Howard Hawks film. (The film’s sharpest-tongued laugh, though, is a laundry detergent ad starring the protagonist where she fools detectives on the hunt for her famous serial killer son. She’s washed the blood stains clean off before the detectives can finger him).

Almovodar’s film, while a wonderfully toxic-sweet black comedy, also demands more though. For this humanist of all humanist directors, these bedeviling filigrees of emotional befuddlement are anything but cynical nose-thumbers or situational molotovs. Instead, not understanding the colliding electrons of one’s feelings or emotions is not merely a reflection of a nervous breakdown, a social problem that must resolved, or an indication of an improperly expressive person. Instead, the liminal state between emotions and reactions that connote unmappabe internal feeling is the essence of life itself. The thrum of confusion is the throb of life, of the intangible impetus to figure out oneself and the eventual, liberating release of the realization that emotion and physical sensation, rather than reason or what we define as logic (but are in reality cultural constructs), is the blood of humanity. That the streams of comedy and drama are slushed together here to the point where no one scene has a stable reaction disturbs the societally accepted standards for feeling, suggesting that real humanity is found not knowing how to react and simply marshalling whatever gut reaction you can. Laughing over the absurdity of not being able to kill oneself is the very wellspring of life, the very sense of emotional chaos, confusion, exultancy, terror, and the beautiful unexpected reactions we give when unchecked by society’s expectations, all of which are what makes life worth living in the first place for Almodovar.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the director had not reached full maturity by this point, but Almodovar the imp as no less pleasurable than Almodovar the savant. If Women on the Verge is held back at all, it is merely circumstantially so when placed as a prelude to the more mature Almodovar of ten years later, one of the few artistic growth-spurts that did not sand down a director’ eccentricities or coerce him to neutralize his defiant itch. He became more tonally knotty and manic depressive, actually increasing the heterogeneity of the mood registers in his films, overlapping disparate feelings in ways that ignited each other as anxious, explosive opposites rather than neutralizing the effect of each other and drowning the film in a swamp of curated, mass-appeal serious-but-not-too-serious indecisiveness. Almodovar has, to this day, never deigned to produce the sort of milquetoast offerings that the Academy loves to trumpet. You know, the ones that are carefully manicured to be solemn and thematic enough so that they make you feel intelligent and middle-class for liking them but not actually daring or difficult enough that they make you really exercise your emotional and philosophical registers. Because maturity actually sharpened his teeth, Women on the Verge bears a slight whiff of timidity compared to the clawing, maniacal likes of (earlier works) Matador and Law of Desire and (later works) Talk to Her and All About my Mother.

Still, with his Hawksian gift for antic mayhem as a problem and a solution (or a balance and a counterbalance) and the subversive spirit of a born formalist like Max Ophuls, the sexually inquisitive patron saint of modern Spanish cinema is probably the true modern heir to the throne of the old melodramas and the more female-oriented of the screwball comedies of classical Hollywood. Women remains his breakthrough film for a reason, perched at the point where his uncultivated charm shines through at its purest, where he emerged as an all-around lover/investigator of the social pressures faced by women who elude society’s will for them and simultaneously struggle to express themselves even though feeling overwhelming compulsions to do so. He understands not only the silliness and tragedy caked into those classical Hollywood genres but their simultaneity, how the melodrama and the screwball both channel the various anxieties and expressive forces of women who in both genres exhibit defiance against society’s all-seeing eye. Although fashionable to call a comedy benign, as in harmless, which is both a sign of strength (relative insouciance) and weakness (timidity, a sign of trivium), a film like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is both malignant arsenic and life-giving cinematic medication.

Imagining anyone who walks into a movie theater as an intrepid adventurer into the recesses of memory, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is undoubtedly a cinephiliac, although not in the mediated way of a scholar with a thesis. Almodovar’s thesis – best expressed in the idea of film as self-love – is not a whimper of a final line of a five paragraph essay or even the abstract of a dissertation. Women is, honestly, an addict, a fanatical devotee and minister for whom half-stepping is a boogeyman and the uncertainty of diving into the unknown jumble of cinema and the mind is the greatest pleasure known to humankind. The film is a kind of effervescence embodied, not, crucially, an exercise indebted to itself but an expression of indebtedness to past cinema and bewilderment at the fabulous muddle of shambolic connotations and jerking impressions the medium affords for at its least affected and most affectionate. In a career of sensationalized emblems of cinematic appreciation, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown may be the most overtly that Almodovar has aroused himself to completion through the creative energy of cinema that feels, for the most unapologetic directors, almost libidinal. Almodovar has never been a filmmaker who works under cover of darkness, and Women is close to as blinding and out-in-the-open as he’s ever gotten.

Score: 9/10

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