Contemporary Classics: Criterion Collection’s ‘WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN’

Carmen Maura in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN is the first of writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s films to be both commercially successful and critically acclaimed – and it’s finally (FINALLY!) made its way into the Criterion Collection. When it was released back in 1988, it ran for 2 years in Spain and garnered Almodóvar an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It also earned him breakthrough status in the States, solidifying a fan base that remains to this day.

My gateway into Almodóvar movies was 1999’s ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and since then, I’ve been slowly catching up with his previous works. Last year I caught a double feature of TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN and HIGH HEELS at Los Angeles’ revival theater, the New Beverly. And since I knew a Criterion disc was on the horizon, I saved my first time viewing of WOMEN ON THE VERGE until now – and I’m so happy I did.

The Film

This screwball comedy is quintessential Almodóvar. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is desperate to talk to her lover, fellow voice-over artist Iván (Fernando Guillén). However, he’s just about to leave her as she’s about to sublet their penthouse love-nest. She goes into hysterics trying to track him down – even going so far as to calling his mentally unstable/ recently institutionalized wife Lucía (Julieta Serrano) to try to track him down. Meanwhile Pepa’s bestie Candela (María Barranco) is freaking out because she slept with a terrorist and now might have the police after her. All this and Iván’s son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas) and his snotty virgin fiancé Marisa (Rossy de Palma) are looking at subletting Pepa’s apartment. Hijinks and hilarity ensue from there, culminating in ways only Almodóvar could do.

The post-Franco world Almodóvar paints is one of near-perfection. The vibrancy and efficacy  of this color palette deeply resonates. The world has evolved and found renewed vigor – except for when it comes to the relationships between men and women. Those have not changed at all. These are long-running through-lines you can trace through Almodóvar’s subsequent works that most likely began here – specifically women always being in control even when chaos surrounds them. Men take a backseat to the female protagonists’ travails. Each of these four strong women demonstrate differing dynamic energies and types, but all wind up meshing well by the end. As demonstrated by Pepa and Marisa’s arcs, which both have satisfying conclusion, it’s a very empowering feature.

All of Almodóvar’s hallmarks are here. Not only does he use much of the same acting troupe he used prior to this (and in subsequent features), he utilizes the emotive power of color to punctuate scenes. Interestingly enough, he also uses shots and angles not typically applied in this genre – those that are perhaps more suited to thrillers (like the close-up of Pepa’s pacing shoes and when she faints). And yet it all works in Almodóvar’s assured aesthetic.

The Blu-Ray Features

To start, this is a utterly gorgeous transfer of the film. The colors of Almodóvar’s world really pop and patterns add further depth and dimension. Audio is crisp and clear as well. It adds another comedic layer when the third act shenanigans kick in (specifically hearing the detective crunch an ice cube in his sleeping pill-laced gazpacho made me chuckle).

Supplemental materials are streamlined. The show-stopping draws here are sparkling transfer of the movie and new, riveting 15-20 minute interviews with Carmen Maura, Pedro Almodóvar and his brother/ producer Agustín Almodóvar (who also cameo’s in the film as the architect). There’s also an 11 minute interview with Richard Peña who nabbed this film for opening night at NYFF ‘88. His interview, combined with the essay by film critic Elvira Lindo put the film’s themes and resonance into greater context. Plus, there’s the American trailer, put out by Orion Pictures (remember them?!), who distributed the film stateside.

The Verdict

If you already own a non-Criterion copy of WOMEN ON THE VERGE, this new iteration will make you use the previous DVD releases as coasters. It’s 100% worth the upgrade.

Here are the official technical specs:

1988 * 89 minutes * Color * 2.0 surround * In Spanish with English subtitles * 1.85:1 aspect ratio

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
* New high-definition digital restoration, supervised by director Pedro Almodóvar and producer Agustín Almodóvar, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
* Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray
* New interviews with director Pedro Almodóvar, actor Carmen Maura, and producer Agustín Almodóvar
* New discussion by film scholar Richard Peña of the film’s impact in Spain and abroad
* Trailer
* New English subtitle translation
* PLUS: An essay by critic Elvira Lindo

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