Pedro Almodóvar is a beloved Spanish director whose distinctive style delights many, but leaves me cold. This isn’t true of all of Almodovar’s films — I quite like his 2002 drama Talk to Her — and I often appreciate his terrific production design, but there’s something that doesn’t quite click, and it’s his confusion of kitsch with character.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which was Almodóvar’s breakthrough into international art-house cinema superstardom, was something of a revelation for me with regard to how I relate to his movies. It’s like an essay statement of the influences that Almodóvar would draw on for the next several decades of his lauded career. First, during the bold opening credits sequence, Almodóvar reveals where his truest talents lie: fashion magazine graphic design. This isn’t an insult; there’s a bold artistry in his coordination of color and costuming and makeup and mise en scène, and the credits, which appear to be clipped from the pages of Spanish Vogue circa 1964, are a real pleasure
Then, during the opening act of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodóvar offers up homages to both Fellini and Hitchock, the former with an 8 /12-style introduction of the suave philandering man who triggers the title mental condition, and the latter in a cute nod toward the classic Rear Window (1954). I’ve noticed the Hitchcock influence on Almodóvar before, in the Technicolor-ish grandeur and swooning score of All About My Mother (1999); and, like Fellini, Almodóvar typically gravitates toward bold, expressive facial landscapes. Bold. That’s what three directors share in common. They aim for maximum impact, with flair; but Fellini and Hitchcock are, at the their best, attentive to the whole of the movie and Almodóvar's gifts seem to be more myopic.
The fourth Almodóvar influence, screwball comedy, is where I think he fails, for me, to live up to the standard of his idols, and it’s the problem that hamstrings Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, at least for my taste. While he has absorbed the superficial "what" of screwball, I don't get the sense that he has reasoned out the "why" or "how" of it. His scenario here and its details are classic 1940s farce — a jilted actress (Carmen Maura) plots revenge on a callous man, and in the process collects a coterie of broken-hearts and romantic rivals and sympathetic peripherals and confused police and sentimental taxi drivers — but where his talents allow him to successfully mimic the vibrant visuals of Fellini and Hitchcock, his writing lacks focus and depth, his gags are more manic than they are clever, and when it comes to framing a bit, he’s got no timing.
While Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is visually big, the cast appears to have been directed at cross-purposes, with a hushed tone, creating a funereal pace — which would be suitable for the subject matter if the script were truly exploring grief and betrayal rather than just playing them for laughs, but all of Almodóvar's care is focused on the surface. There’s no center to any of the characters, they are pawns of a forced script, and while many of the performers — including (especially) Julieta Serrano, Rossy de Palma, María Barranco and Fernando Guillén — get memorable visual moments that deserve frame grabs, no one is worth caring about before or after those moments.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is, really, the movie equivalent of a neatly laid-out fashion magazine spread, meticulously obsessed with style and its content glib enough to glance at while flipping pages. But it’s also lazy, never insightful, sometimes downright perplexing, rarely more than mildly amusing, and not bad to look at for a good portion of its 100 minutes.