Almódovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988)


Spanish Movie Poster for WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988) [image source: The L Magazine]

THE BOTTOM LINE: “Learning mechanics is easier than learning male psychology.”

FRISCO KID’s rating4 stars

We return to the Spanish cinema of the late 1980s to focus on one of the five essential films of Almódovar, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios):

Movie DVD caseProduction: Pedro Almodóvar

Direction: Pedro Almodóvar

Screenwriting: Pedro Almodóvar

Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine

Starring:  Carmen MauraAntonio BanderasJulieta SerranoMaría BarrancoRossy de PalmaFernando Guillén

Plot Summary

In the Madrid of the 1980s, Pepa (Maura) dubs movie dialogue in Spanish as a voice-over artist, as does her married lover, Ivan (Guillén), who has just left her for another woman. Coupled with the revelation that Ivan is the father of her unborn child, this event drives her to the edge of a nervous breakdown, but she manages to avoid plunging off this precipice while attempting to track him down. Instead, the world becomes deranged around her. Her friend Candela (Barranco) comes to her seeking asylum from the police after realizing that her boyfriend is a Shiite terrorist (who has just been arrested with his accomplices). Serendipitiously, Ivan’s son, Carlos (Banderas) and his fiancée Marisa (de Palma) stop by to view the apartment (which Pepa had decided to sublet, but then trashed). Finally, Ivan’s certifiably insane wife, Lucia (Serrano), shows up looking for her husband, whom she thinks is leaving town with Pepa. How can this melodramatic mess be untangled without bloodshed or someone else going crazy?

Julieta Serrano and Carmen Maura

Julieta Serrano and Carmen Maura in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)


Pedro Almodovar

Pedro Almodóvar (© Copyright 2008, Roberto Gordo Saez; image used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License)

This is one of Almodóvar’s early films (the seventh out of nineteen to date). A farce with melodramatic elements, it focuses on one of his favorite themes, female independence and solidarity. The film was his first major international hit and became the bridge to his later work. One of Almodóvar’s most accessible films, it received accolades from both viewers and critics worldwide, which brought him to the attention of American audiences. It also won or was nominated for many honors:

David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Director
European Film Award for Best Young Film
Goya Award for Best Film
Goya Award for Best Original Screenplay
National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Language Film
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Language Film
Venice Film Festival—Golden Osella
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Film not in the English Language
Nominated—David di Donatello for Best Foreign Film
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film

In 2010, an adaptation of the film was staged as a Broadway musical. Directed by Bartlett Sher, with book by Jeffrey Lane and songs by David Yazbek, it starred Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Laura Benanti.


I enjoyed this film as entertainment when it first ran in the United States in the late 80s. With the passage of time, with its accumulation of experience, I can appreciate it more on artistic grounds. It remains as entertaining as it was 25 years ago. Nevertheless, the visual and situational comedy and rapid-fire, ironic dialogue are not just entertaining. Almodóvar uses these elements of farce to leaven the miserable situations in which he places his characters. The characters themselves, especially the women, are on the verge of nervous breakdowns, or rather, attacks of hysteria (a better rendering of the translation). As Wikipedia points out,

Ataques de nervios are culture-bound psychological phenomena during which the individual, most often female, displays dramatic outpouring of negative emotions, bodily gestures, occasional falling to the ground, and fainting, often in response to receiving disturbing news or witnessing or participating in an upsetting event. Historically, this condition has been associated with hysteria and more recently in the scientific literature with post-traumatic stress and panic attacks.

Who is the cause of the traumatic events in this movie? The self-absorbed, ineffectual men. Ivan drives Pepa to near-suicide (and his wife to near-homicide) with his cheating chauvinism, yet he isn’t brave enough to face either one, even to pick up his suitcase from Pepa’s apartment. His son, Carlos, shows early signs of his father’s philandering nature, but nevertheless allows himself to be dominated by Pepa and Marisa. Almodóvar does not reserve all of his social satire for men, however. The only identified “feminist” in the plot, the lawyer Paulina Morales (Kiti Manver), turns out to be not much of a practitioner of women’s solidarity.

Film Facts (from IMDB):

  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Runtime: 90 min
  • Sound Mix: Ultra Stereo
  • Color: Color (Eastmancolor)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1