Pepa (Carmen Maura) is sleeping late in her penthouse apartment, because she took a pill to get to the Land of Nod since she has been so stressed lately, what with her lover Ivan (Fernando Guillén) breaking up with her much against her wishes. She was aware he was a womaniser when she first started seeing him, but put up with it because she was so much in love, but now he is adamant that they must go their separate ways, and it's hitting her mental balance hard, to the point that all those sleeping pills she got from the doctor might be an ideal way out of this world. She is an actress, best known for playing the mother of the Machete Killer on television, and she was supposed to be at work today, dubbing an advertisement - would Ivan be there too?
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was director Pedro Almodóvar's breakout hit internationally, he had been a cult figure before, but with this there was acclaim from the mainstream and talk of a Hollywood remake, so lauded was it. That never happened, which was probably just as well for as usual he worked in a distinctively Spanish milieu, with lots of heightened, if not exaggerated, emotions, farcical situations and a keen sense of melodrama that tipped over into outright camp: basically every element that won him his following, though not what he would deliver in every movie. If you wanted a way in to his oeuvre, then you could do a lot worse that start here.
Of course, not everyone who saw this felt as warmly towards it as its champions, as the accusation that Almodóvar was a misogynist in female empowerment clothing dogged this film thanks to some objections that the titular women were on the verge of those nervous breakdowns had ended up in that perilous state because they were defining themselves by the men in their lives, so were not so much strong and independent but actually stuck in caveman attitudes that saw them in thrall to those males who treated 'em mean to keep 'em keen. For some reason those criticisers didn't see the references the director was making to classic melodrama, where the ill-treatment of the heroines only made them more capable.
It also offered a sense of perspective that they would not have enjoyed otherwise, and simply because we caught them in the middle of their crises did not have to see it that they would be stuck in that mindset for the rest of their existence, indeed by the final scenes Pepa in particular has used her turmoil to make it a positive force in her life to come, which is about as empowering as it was possible to get. Not everyone can go through life being proficient at managing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, in fact most of us are not, and watching these characters struggle against the mess their lives threaten to become was cathartic for many, not only women either. It was here that Almodóvar was justifiably setting out his stall as a director of multifaceted females, and that only increased his welcome across the globe.
The plot was a mishmash of various strands that could have sufficed for a number of separate movies, but by stringing them all together the filmmaker crafted something busy and frenetic at points, not so much of the door-slamming or trouser-dropping that British farce would have seen, but a particularly Spanish take on the form. Pepa finds her apartment attracting various types of neurotic individuals, or some more neurotic than others at any rate, which pulls in a suicidal actress (María Barranco) who was in love with a terrorist, or a couple (Antonio Banderas and Rossy de Palma, what a pair) who wish to view the place so they can potentially buy it, but everyone here had their own hang-ups, even the bleached blond taxi driver (Guillermo Montesinos) who has decked out his car with as many conveniences as possible and is dragged into the closest thing Almodóvar shot to an action scene. If the comedy, which was laugh out loud in its longsuffering observations and quirks, didn't hit the funny bone, then you had to admit the design of the piece was terrific, making it one of the director's most stylish works with all the actresses dressed to kill and colour exploding from the screen like a Douglas Sirk movie. The main drawback was that it was hell to make, and Maura, who is so good here, fell out with Almodóvar because he pushed her so hard: they made up eventually, but we were denied what could have been a truly great creative pairing for a long while. Music by Bernardo Bonezzi.