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‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1988

Gorging on the bad, bad world of TV soap operas, tabloid news and those Roy Lichtenstein cartoons where anguished women lament their lives with "Brad," Spanish director Pedro Almodovar gets a wonderful rise out of life's lows in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

The title means what it says. Voice-dubbing actress Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) is losing her mind because extramarital lover Ivan (Fernando Guillen) has asked her to pack his bags. Ivan's wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano) is convinced the Pepa affair is still aflame, so she goes on a gun-toting rampage. Meanwhile excitable Candela (Maria Barranco) is in trouble with the cops because she unwittingly fell for a Shiite terrorist, so she hides in Pepa's apartment and . . .

There's more, much more. Right from the opening -- a gaudy red sequence of roses, lipstick, lingerie-catalog torsos and fingernails tearing across the screen -- "Women" spirals deliciously into a Spanish version of Joan Crawford Hell (during one scene, in fact, Mommie Dearest herself can be seen in a rerun of "Johnny Guitar"). Hearts are broken, stockings torn, suicide attempts botched, windows smashed; and a roomful of cops, lovers and a telephone repairman all lie asleep because Pepa loaded the gazpacho with barbituates.

"Women" slinks devilishly (and expertly) between farce, absurdism and tragedy. Pepa, at one point, performs in a soap powder commercial as the proud mother of a serial killer who washes her son's bloody clothes so white it confounds the forensics squad. At another point (to the sound of heavenly harp-strings), she accidentally sets fire to her bed before calmly hosing it down. ("Sorry about the mess," she tells visitors, pointing to the black crater in her bed).

But in Almodovar's world Pepa's not ridiculous. The director of the disturbing, deeply affecting "Law of Desire" and "Matador" imbues everyone with dignity -- from Pepa to the male, bleached-blond cab driver whose cab is more like a waiting room, with its hanging pendants, mambo music (Farfisa organ score), magazine racks and leopardskin decor. "Women" is a perfectly realized work by a man of demonic wit and tender sensibility.

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