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'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 22, 1988

Spain's prolific Pedro Almodóvar leaves black comedy behind in his fabulous '50s-ish caprice, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." In this glossy delight, it's as if Doris Day had been brought forward in time and confronted with the consequences of living in sin.

The click of stubborn heels, the smart little suits, the Doris determination can all be found in the smashing Carmen Maura, the most nervous of Almodóvar's women. Except there's nothing prim about this lady of Spain. Almodo'var, a pornographer, anarchist and 10-year employee of the telephone company, designs an uninhibited variation on the old save-yourself-for-marriage movies. Since he has already shocked everybody with "Law of Desire" and "Matador," the moviemaker turns to a glib comedy of bad manners -- men, the swine -- set among the post-Franco bourgeoisie.

Maura, Almodóvar's longtime muse, plays the heroine Pepa, a soap opera actress and movie dubber, who has been left high and dry and pregnant by Ivn (Fernando Guillén), her lover of many years. The fainthearted cad never confronts Pepa; he dumps her via her answering machine and refuses to return her calls. He is a telephone milquetoast -- the worst kind of scum if you ask Almodóvar, who conceived the movie as an update of Jean Cocteau's "The Human Voice," a monologue for an actress with a phone and a suitcase.

Of all the misfortunes that can befall a woman -- bad haircuts, broken fingernails -- there is nothing worse than getting your aorta stomped by a man. And Ivn, who casts the right line for every woman, has done plenty of stomping. In a dizzy 24-hour period, Pepa finally learns the truth about him, that this man she was trying so desperately to get back is unworthy of her -- or, for that matter, most any woman save the villainess, a feminist who is debunked along with the movement she represents. Feminism is of no help when it comes to men.

Pepa prefers Valium. In fact, her recipe for gazpacho is a pound of vine-ripened tomatoes, one clove of garlic and three dozen tranquilizers. She's just about to drink it when the bed, their bed, suddenly bursts into flames. Well, Pepa never does gets back to committing suicide, sidetracked as she is by an assortment of visitors to her terraced penthouse. Indeed her friend Candela (Maria Barranco) attempts to throw herself over the balcony just to get Pepa's attention. Candela unknowingly had an affair with a Shiite terrorist and is running from the police.

"Men keep taking advantage of me," she says. "Look how the Arab world treated me . . . I wouldn't want to be with a man right now." A quick healer, the naive Candela is soon snuggling with Ivn's son Carlos (Antonio Banderas), who has come to look at the penthouse, which Pepa has put up for rent. His fiancée, a real crab cake, has gotten into the gazpacho and is conveniently sound asleep. The police, a telephone repairman, Carlos's crazy mother Lucia (Julieta Serrano), whom Iva'n dumped 20 years before, all converge on Pepa's place. But Pepa keeps running in and out, keeps changing from sneakers to pumps, sneakers to pumps.

Almodo'var comprehends the sexual power inherent in a pair of high heels, and Pepa wouldn't go unshod to the war between the sexes. She may be dithering, but she has the good sense to go dressed to kill. Maura is a dark-eyed dish, a fiercely deadpan comedian with the gaunt good looks of a Jeanne Moreau. She and the rest of the cast make a combustive mix -- Barranco's a sweetly ditsy Candela, Serrano's majestically wronged and all got up in her pillbox period wardrobe, and Banderas is warm but lawyerly.

When the cops arrive at Pepa's apartment, Candela, fearing arrest, begins to weep in Carlos's arms. "We were just discussing the señora's dress," he dissembles. "It's awful," says Candela, sobbing openly. There's the brittle fiancée (Rossy De Palma), an exotic sleeping beauty on the balcony who dreams she loses her virginity. "Virgins are awful, aren't they?" says Pepa to the now-contented girl.

Almodóvar aims to be a sensitive guy; that's clear from the affection he feels for his heroines, his passion for fake fur interiors and such lines as, "It's easier to learn mechanics than male psychology. You can know a motorcycle from top to bottom. But a man, never." It is also important to remember that he is a sensitive guy from Spain, Hemingway's favorite place to spend the weekend.

This is painless sexual politics, a fiendish comedy full of prickles and pain and the bright shiny pinks of a matador's cape. The farce falters from time to time, the pace is imperfect, but who can resist this "Twilight Zone" of limitless coincidences, where kindly grandmothers break the nightly news and the mother of a notorious killer endorses detergents?

"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," in Spanish with subtitles, is not rated but is equivalent to a PG-13.

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