Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Pedro Almodóvar makes telephones, a mambo taxi, and a burning mattress into delirious plot points and indelible images in his international breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Melding melodrama with screwball farce, this Academy Award–nominated black comedy secured the auteur’s place at the vanguard of modern Spanish cinema. Continuing Almodóvar’s exploration of the female psyche, the film tells the story of Pepa, an actor—played by the director’s frequent collaborator Carmen Maura—who resolves to kill herself with a batch of sleeping-pill-laced gazpacho after her lover leaves her. Fortunately, she is interrupted by a string of visitors, setting in motion a deliciously chaotic series of events. The filmmaker channeled inspiration by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk into his own unique vision, arriving at the irreverent sense of humor and vibrant visual sense that define his work today. With a sensational ensemble cast of early Almodóvar regulars that also includes Antonio Banderas and Rossy de Palma, this film shows an artist in total control of his craft.
Pedro Almodóvar’s breakout hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown makes its way back into the Criterion Collection with this new Blu-ray edition, which presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a 2K restoration originally scanned from the 35mm camera negative.
The film is a very colourful, energetic one and this presentation captures it all wonderfully. It has a very filmic appearance first off, very natural looking, cleanly rendering the film’s (mostly) fine grain structure and clearly delivering the fine details. The image is very sharp, very crisp, with never a hint of softness (outside of the opening anyways) and it delivers excellent textures, fine patterns, and a great sense of depth.
The strongest aspect to all of this, though, is the presentation of the film’s colours. They look absolutely spectacular here, and I don’t think they’ve ever come close to looking anywhere near this good on any previous home video release. There are a lot of reds and oranges and they look terrific with gorgeous saturation, never blooming or bleeding, and never looking blocky or digital. Blues and greens are also sharp, a few sequences involving a sharp blue sky in the (obviously staged) background looking particularly striking, and this all leads to a certain artificiality that Almodóvar is going for. Black levels are also nicely handled, looking deep and inky, and shadow delineation is excellent.
The opening sequence, after the credits is a bit rough, though intentionally so. This portion was obviously filmed with a grainy black and white film stock and the detail is admittedly a bit limited here, but it suits the fantasy quality of it and there are certainly no digital anomalies here, the film grain looking quite natural.
The restoration work is also thorough and I don’t recall a single blemish ever rearing its ugly head. Even the very grainy opening doesn’t appear to present any flaws of note. The work that has gone into this is wonderful and it has been encoded beautifully. It’s an absolute stunner of a presentation.
Criterion includes two DTS-HD MA surround tracks: the original 2.0 mix and then a remastered 5.1 track. I can’t fault either. Both are strong, delivering sharp dialogue and music. Fidelity is decent, as is range, and distortion isn’t a problem. I also didn’t notice any cracks, pops, or hiss, both tracks sounding very clean.
Both sound fine, though I can’t say there is too big of difference between them in terms of mixing, or at least I couldn’t detect much of a difference. Neither present much in the way of surround effects, audio focused to the fronts primarily—not surprising for a dialogue driven film—and there are noticeable pans and splits in both tracks. Otherwise both are clear and sharp and it will come down to personal preference.
This is the film that put Almodóvar on the map (at least in North America) so I would have expected Criterion to maybe go all out with this release and its features. Disappointingly the release is a bit slim, though since there are rumours that Criterion has access to all of the director’s work, I’m going to put it down to Criterion maybe just trying to spread out the wealth, so to speak.
We do get a few rather good interviews at least, the first with director Pedro Almodóvar. He goes over the film’s production and its influences (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when he mentions the film was inspired in part by Rossellini’s The Human Voice, which also inspired his previous film, Law of Desire), and then talks about the style of the film. I most enjoyed this latter part, where he talks about the film’s American screwball nature and the photography that seemed to be more suited for a thriller. I also enjoyed his breakdown of the little details he laced throughout and what these things and the various characters represented. It’s short but fairly illuminating.
Criterion next includes a new interview with actor Carmen Maura, and this one turns out to be a gem. For 19-minutes a very open and very honest Maura talks about her rather varied career and the fairly unlikely path she took in becoming an actress after Almodóvar showed interest in her. You get a sense that at one point Maura was uneasy in her lot in life, stating early in the interview she was terrible at everything, but acting seems to have helped her find a purpose and has helped her work through various personal problems. She finds the profession liberating and she’s proud of the work she’s done. I also enjoyed her very down-to-Earth sense and her humour (it “takes ovaries to have a sense of humour in life” she states). It’s a really wonderful discussion and I hope she might show up in other features on other Almodóvar releases.
The director’s brother (and film’s producer) Agustín Almodóvar is next up to bat, offering a more technical and, I guess, administrative perspective to the film and his brother’s work. He explains how he ended up getting sucked into becoming a producer (family) and then putting this film together, from set construction to post-production to release, and how the success of the film put them into the big times. It’s a somewhat amusing interview because a.) Agustín is the polar opposite of Pedro (he explains that he is the “pragmatic one”) and b.) this obviously wasn’t his career path but he has certainly molded himself into it. It runs about 16-minutes.
To offer a somewhat academic perspective Criterion employs professor and NY Film Festival Programmer Richard Peña to talk about the film. Peña explains how he first became programmer and how there was pressure over his first run of the festival to find that one film that would make an impact on opening night. It was then that he came across Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and he instantly knew this was the film that needed to open it. He explains how taken he was by its portrayal of its women characters, how men were the problem, and loved its unorthodox style and blend of thriller and screwball elements. Most importantly, though, even if it was both challenging and new, he also felt it would be very accessible, and of course the film went on to become a hit. It’s only 11-minutes long but I enjoyed his backstory to how the film grabbed the film world’s attention and what it was that so grabbed his attention.
Closing off the release is the film’s American theatrical trailer, and the included insert features an essay by Elvira Lindo, covering the film and its impact on post-Franco Spanish cinema, sharing her own memories of the time. The essay is a good read and the other supplements are all pretty good, and I can’t complain about any of it (Maura’s interview is pretty great all on its own) but for such a landmark film I guess I figured there would be more to it.
I would have expected a bigger special edition but getting past that aspect of it Criterion’s Blu-ray delivers on the presentation, presenting a sharp, filmic image that finally captures the film’s very bold colour scheme like no other home video release before it in North America.