A Fount of Pleasure and a Matrix of Meaning: Notes Arising from a Viewing of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’

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Carmen Maura once again too late to talk to her ex in ^Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown^
Carmen Maura once again too late to talk to her ex in ^Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown^

Seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again earlier this week made me think that, whilst each Almodóvar film can be enjoyed in and of itself on first viewing,  his films become richer seen as part of the process in the unfolding of his ouvre. I suppose this can be said of any great director and was certainly a basic precept behind the auteur ‘theory’. However, with Almodóvar, its different, or perhaps just more intensely so, in that  it’s not just a coherent style or recurring themes but a kind of unfolding of ideas, situations and themes from film to film in a style that seems the same in spirit but is the product of a much greater command of the medium as the oeuvre progresses. For example, one can see how the nugget of an idea in one film (Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La voix humaine’ on stage in Law of Desire [1987] becomes the basis of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [1988], the filming of which becomes an integral plot point in Broken Embraces [2009]).

Carmen Maura playing Tina   playing Cocteau's 'La Voix humaine'  in  'Law of Desire'
Carmen Maura playing Tina playing Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ in ‘Law of Desire’

In looking at Almodóvar’s work, this unfolding comes to seem richer still if these inter-connected elements are then linked to a conscious articulation of the references they were employed to evoke. The idea is to see Almodóvar’s films in the fullness of their diachrony but also within their synchronic relations. Each film could be seen as a matrix in which not all the dots need to be joined together to get pleasure or meaning. They could exist as relational planes, one beyond the other but also circling within a cybernetic type of space in which the viewer can at best access only certain elements. Yet the desire to see them in their fullness is an enriching drive because there are always pleasures and meanings to be had behind and around the view on overt display by exploring relations, echoes, references, the little bytes of meaning, colour and design the bricoleur that is Almodóvar utilised in the overall design of the image to achieve its dramatic intent.

Anna Magnani performing 'La Voix humaine' as filmed by Rossellini.
Anna Magnani performing ‘La Voix humaine’ as filmed by Rossellini.

As an example of this unfolding in Almodóvar’s work let’s linger over Carmen Maura in Women. Up to that point she’d appeared in all of Almodóvar’s features bar Labyrinth of Passion (thought it might be worth noting that that film, like Women, has a similar race to the airport as the film’s finale). In Law of Desire she played Tina, a trans-sexual, who gets the lead in Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, and triumphs nightly onstage in a female monologue of a woman speaking to her invisible and inaudible lover who is leaving her to marry another woman.

Carmen Maura as Pepa making her gazpacho in 'Women on the Verge'
Carmen Maura as Pepa making her gazpacho in ‘Women on the Verge’

This scene of Maura as Tina onstage as the protagonist of  La Voix humaine, a great part that had already been enacted by great actresses and stars on-stage (Berthe Bovy), on vinyl (Hildegard Knef, Simone Signoret) and on-screen (Anna Magnani in L’Amore (Italy, 1948) a film directed by Rossellini which included Cocteau’s ‘La Voix humaine’ and also Federico Fellini’s ‘Il Miracolo’),  then becomes the germ of the idea for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It’s a tour-de-force part for, to use Kenneth Tynan’s term, a ‘high-definitio’ performer —  one can see why Poulenc turned Cocteau’s play into a one-act opera, in which form it continues to be staged as a showcase  vehicle for a long line-up of illustrious opera divas, Lesley Garrett being but a recent example.

Pe as Pepa making her gazpacho but in the film within 'Broken Embraces'
Pe as Pepa making her gazpacho but in the film within ‘Broken Embraces’

In Women, Carmen Maura plays Pepa, constantly too late to say to her ex-lover what she needs to tell him; he always having left just as she’s arriving; she in contact only with his recorded voice, smooth, professional. Carmen playing Pepa in a melodramatic screwball becomes Penelope Cruz playing Pepa but in the original script idea for Women on the Verge entitled Chicas Y Maletas (‘Chicks and Suitcases ‘or ‘Gals and Suitcases’, neither translation quite conveys that combination of girly-ness and hipness that ‘Chicas’ does – the logical equivalent something like a ‘cool chick’ to me always seems a moniker with an implied male designator or addressee, whereas ‘chicas’ has a communal female feel, a term used by women within a female context but to refer to youthful behavior that might border on the slightly transgressive) but this time in a film within a film composed within the porous, billowing fog of noir.

Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz as mother and daughter in 'Volver'.
Carmen Maura and Penelope Cruz as mother and daughter in ‘Volver’.

In Broken Embraces, Penelope Cruz is playing the Carmen Maura role. Maura had played Cruz’s mom in Volver. Pe is thus the Pepa once played by the actress who was to play her mom. But Penelope Cruz in Broken Embraces is not just a version of Pepa, she is also and simultaneously a version of Audrey Hepburn, and Dietrich, and a film noir heroine, and an ideal movie star.

Penelope Cruz channelling Audrey Hepburn in 'Broken Embraces'
Penelope Cruz channelling Audrey Hepburn in ‘Broken Embraces’

‘Chicas y Maletas’, Broken Embraces’ version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, gets barbarically destroyed in the initial edit by the industrialist villain in Broken Embraces. But at the end of that film, the remaining protagonists hover around a steenbeck looking at a restored section of ‘Girls and Suitcases’, and declare it wondrous and marvellous. Personally, I found it to be a pale, thin, sitcom imitation of the masterpiece that is Women.

Cruz in the foreground, Romy Schneider in the background, the miss-en-scene subtly attributing the qualities of the latter to the former
Cruz in the foreground, Romy Schneider in the background, the miss-en-scene subtly attributing the qualities of the latter to the former

As I was watching Women on the Verge there were moments when I was thinking simultaneously back to Law of Desire or Labyrinth of Passion and forwards onto Broken Embraces, and on different planes in relation to Magnani and Signoret, and also in relation to a whole history of female stardom in a variety of guises that seemed to somehow foreground glamour and film noir, all without losing sight of that wonderful comic timing, and still being moved by Maura, and still admiring the 80’s chic of it all. And there were many other moments in the film where this way of looking simultaneously diachronically but also within an extraordinary range of  synchronic relations resulted in bursts of all kinds of pleasure.

José Arroyo

2 thoughts on “A Fount of Pleasure and a Matrix of Meaning: Notes Arising from a Viewing of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’

    […] are already present, some in scenes that recur and get better executed in later films (for example, the chase to the airport that we later see in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but many others as […]

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    […] And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces […]

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