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Thursday, 20 October 2011

New-to-me Directors': Pedro Almodovar

Women On The Verge of Nervous Breakdown is the first Almodovar film I have seen.
Which means I've finally decided to remedy what was a pretty obvious flaw in my film knowledge, by delving into the work of Spains' most acclaimed modern director.
I can't say why my attention fell on this film in particular, but I needed a place to start and Women On The Verge Of Nervous Breakdown certainly had an intriguing title.

I was very impressed, with this film Almodovar has crafted what is essentially a romantic comedy in such an original, amusing and energetic way that I immediately decided to seek out more of his work.
Talk To Her was the next I saw of his, and was even more impressed by his handling of a far more serious and dramatic plot, though not without it's humourous moments. But this review concerns my first experience with his work, so I will try to keep Talk To Her out of it and focus only on the marvelous little film that is Women On The Verge of Nervous Breakdown.

Women On The Verge of Nervous Breakdown tells the story of Pepa, an inhabitant of Madrid who works in a dubbing studio. It is a film that fits best into the Romantic Comedy genre, and indeed it is one of the earliest and best that I've seen, but it is not presented in a fully straightforward manner. At the beginning of the film Pepa breaks up with her lover Ivan due to reasons that are only revealed much later in the film,  and the proceeds to spend the rest of the film trying to get in touch with Ivan to explain things to him and to get rid of his possessions kept in her apartment. However as is to be expected from a comedy, a collection of colourful characters turn up throughout the film and drop their respective problems on Pepa's shoulders, amusingly though it turns out everyone's stories and problems are linked together in a brilliant fashion.
The real strength of the film lies in the writing, each character however unimportant at first ends up playing a pivotal role in the story. it's easy to see that the script had been pieced together meticulously as it moves along at a perfect pace, combines slapstick comedy with some rather dark humour, some rather bittersweet scenes and even some action sequences.
It is a very clever film in that at first glance it appears to be a very 80's romantic comedy, but when one looks deeper it is in fact a brilliant little subversion of the genre.
Romantic Comedies are well known for their happy endings and rather mild content, however this film has neither, with an ending that can only be called bittersweet and various plotlines of a slightly more serious nature than you'd expect from a film like this, even if they are played for laughs, such as terrorist threats and a psychotic main character. 
But for me this only made it even more clear that Almodovar was aiming for a less feel-good type of comedy. In this comedy, there is an established atmosphere of chaos, of frustration and hysteria that runs throughout, after all it is entitled Women On The Verge of Nervous Breakdown.
The main character Pena is the first to reach the verge of nervous breakdown, but ultimately the other female characters reach it as well. It is perhaps a strange choice of subject for a comedy, but I thought it worked well considered the nature of the comedy in the film, which was largely built around misunderstandings, communication problems and frustrated attempts to sort things out, mixed in to this is a fair amount of black comedy including a suicide attempt, scenes involving a drugged drink and the threat of a terrorist attack.

Another element of the title is key to getting an idea of what the film is about, the fact that it is about Women is clearly specified in the title. The women presented in the film are portrayed in almost interesting way, it is a very female-centric film, but there are no false or misguided attempts to portray "empowered women" or anything of the sort, instead they are just portrayed as women of their time, strong minded and independant but also needing men. I won't go much further on the subject, because as a man it isn't really one of my strong points. But I did enjoy seeing a film that struck a balance between the pathetic women who need a strong man around to do everything for them, and the empowered women who have no use for men and run around trying their best to prove they can do everything just as well if not better than men. Women On The Verge Of Nervous Breakdown was very refreshing in that sense, of course all the characters aren't female, but it is principally about those who are, with the men serving more as plot devices, set ups for gags or, in the case of Ivan, the link between the many characters in the film.

The performances were all solid, nothing amazing, though Carmen Maura was very good in the lead role, but as in many comedies, the characters are more important than the actual actors, so in this sense the film succeeds as it has well written characters who the cast bring to life on screen admirably.
The technical aspects were as with most comedies, primarily used as a showcase for the comical proceedins and winding storyline, but Almodovar does manage to slip in some very interesting sequences, especially towards the beginning of the film, where the film starts on a more serious note before gradually descending into comedy, and ending up with practically slapstick comedy towards the end.
Having seen this film, I was convinced that Almodovar could make a good comedy film, and upon viewing Talk To Her (Habla Con Ella) I realise that he can pull off much more serious, and at times rather controversial, content just as well, if not better.
Few directors show themselves equally proficient at both comedic and serious films, and such versatility is to be admired. Almodovar clearly is a director worthy of all the praise he has received over the years. I can't say I'm very familiar with contemporary Spanish Cinema but this film has got me interested in it, why I've never even thought of exploring it before I have no idea, but I'm glad I'm finally getting around to it.
Almodovar is easily the most acclaimed and well known Spanish director ever since Luis Bunuel, and I would even say that the fact that Bunuel never actually made a film in Spain would qualify Almodovar for the title of best Spanish director ever. I would need to see more of his work before coming to such conclusions though.

Naturally the humour is very Spanish, so I can't say I really "got" all the jokes, especially the puns and wordplay. But I still found it fairly accessible from a foreigners point of view, I will admit to having studied Spanish for many years so I was able to understand more of the films dialogue than someone completely unfamiliar with the tongue would, but I think that it is inevitable when watching a film from another culture that some of the jokes will be lost on you. 

This is a film that is very much of it's time, in fact the whole plot would be resolved in a couple of minutes today as much of it is based around communication problems and other such things. The costumes, decor and pretty much everything else is so strongly of it's time that the film really has not aged very well. But such is often the case with comedies, I believe they are the hardest of all genres to make well and it is exceptionally rare to come across a comedy that transcends time and even more rare to find one that transcends nationalities. Women On The Verge of Nervous Breakdown is not one of these, but it is nonetheless a very well written, original, and hilarious.
I would recommend it for those in search of a good European comedy. It's such a refreshing break from the usual Hollywood comedies, and rom-com's, which more often then not end up boring me to tears. Which some notable exceptions, I tend to lean more towards European comedies than US ones, and Women On The Verge of Nervous Breakdown just goes to show that a different culture can deliver comedy in a completely different style and be even more entertaining than an American comedy. I know this may sound rather unfair, for there are some great American comedies, but the truth is, it is (along with Horror) my least favourite genre and I don't generally bother with it, except for my handful of favourite comedy films. That would explain why there is a general lack of reviews for comedy films on this blog...

For the next instalment, I'm taking a more obscure turn, as it will be about experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. I'm not sure exactly what to expect, but I'm looking forward to seeing something rather different, even I ultimately have an negative reaction to it.

For the previous posts check out the original post of the project, where I will add a link to each completed review.

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