SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY, including sex, neurosis, and death.
To rev up art-house habitués for the US release of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Volver, Sony Pictures Classics has packaged an eight-film retrospective of the Spanish director’s work. First up is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios|Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the film that made Almodóvar an international hot commodity in 1988. It remains one of the highlights of a likable body of work that has a little something for everybody — above all, cool kicks about sex, neurosis, and death, served up in a luscious style that embraces camp, but not overstrenuously.
A pleasant and tidy affair, Mujeres has to do with Pepa (Carmen Maura), a TV actress who finds herself dumped by her lover, actor Ivan (Fernando Guillén). Pepa alternately rushes around Madrid in search of Ivan and frets over his failure to call her. Meanwhile her penthouse apartment is besieged by assorted visitors including Candela (María Barranco), who’s in a panic because her lover turned out to be a Shiite terrorist.
The cutesy-poo coincidences — Pepa gets picked up by the same cab driver three times; anything that falls or gets thrown from an upper story of a building lands near, or on, one of the principals — are as essential to the utopian fantasy Almodóvar strives to concoct as his multi-colored telephones. Mujeres is a film of consolation and escape, in which movement, action, color, and barbiturates assuage the pain of losing a lover. The penthouse set is Almodóvar’s coup, a vast stage that allows him to create a chic never-land that’s a lot like the Manhattan penthouse of Hitchcock’s Rope. His is a decorator’s cinema, and Mujeres is a catalogue of delectable objects, a fanatical display of style closer to the decadent bloodbaths of Dario Argento than to the high Hollywood melodrama of Douglas Sirk, with whom Almodóvar has been endlessly compared.
The tasteful garishness of the film is kept from being cloying by the director's unobtrusive skill with staging and camera movement. A bravura tracking shot at dawn shows an avenue in depth: all the street lights go out at once as Pepa crosses the foreground. A nice thing about Almodóvar is that when this sort of thing happens in his films, it never looks fussed over: there’s a “That’s it, let’s move on” quality to everything that makes his less pretentious films enjoyable (though it deserts him in more somber efforts like 2004’s La mala educación|Bad Education). He shares with Fassbinder, Chabrol, and Ruiz the gift of speed, though he lacks other qualities — including, respectively, brutality, corrosiveness, and a luxuriant imagination — that make them great filmmakers. Never transcending its creator’s intellectual neatness, his love of surface complexity, and his fondness for wrapping things up and putting a shiny bow on them, Mujeres is slick entertainment, well crafted and intelligent. It provides the kind of muted eroticism, wit, and suspense that used to be the common currency of popular European cinema and that, to judge from Almodóvar’s continuing success, appears unlikely to disappear altogether from movie screens.