Comedy and Melodrama: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) was Pedro Almodovar’s first international commercial success. Made only eleven years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, this film asserts a rupture with the old regime, although it is not directly addressed. The eighties saw the birth of the Movida, with Almodovar as the most noticeable protagonist; a movement challenging traditional values through “radical apolitism,” – hence the absence of direct allusion to Francoism in Women – and post-modernism. Post-modernism is the blending of references and aesthetic from other films. Moreover, Women can be seen as an example of “cultural transvestism,”[1] for it indeed mixes filmic references but also cultural and popular references, such as Pop aesthetics.

It is with no surprise that Women, referred to as a comedy, also contains elements of melodrama and is rich in intertextuality. The aim of this essay will be to analyse how the formal aspects of this film conveys both the codes of comedy and melodrama.

I will first try to give a more precise approach to the meaning of comedy and melodrama, which are both modes more than genres, allowing per se a great mixture of formal styles and intertextuality. I will provide a more in –depth formal analysis of the beginning, the chase and the ending.

 

Let us first define the term comedy, since it is the main tone of the film. Geoff King describes comedy as – obviously – “provoking laughter or humour on the part of the viewer.”[2] But more importantly, “comedy is a mode – a manner of representation – in which a variety of different materials can be approached,”[3] i.e. a genre can be treated with a humorous approach. On the other hand, melodrama is also a mode, as explains Linda Williams, that is not at all cantoned to the woman’s films or family melodramas, it is “a form that seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action,”[4] meaning that melodrama as a mode would seek answers to modernity’s challenging of values, placing the individual. Thus, the use of two modes in Women instead of a “mode plus genre,” (e.g. horror comedy, Western melodrama) allows a great flexibility and plurality of references and genre (e.g. the thriller as we will see later.)

Pepa is a dubbing actress, left by her lover and co-worker Ivan (Fernando Guillen.) However she learns she is pregnant and tries to reach him by all means but she never succeeds because of bad timing and Ivan cowardly avoiding her. Ivan was previously married with Lucia (Julietta Serrano), with whom he had a son, Carlos (Antonio Banderas), gauche and clumsy. Lucia went mad and committed in a clinic after Ivan cheated on her and left her. Ivan left Pepa for a feminist lawyer, Paulina (Kiti Manver), who was actually defending Lucia. Parallel to that, Candela (Maria Barranco), the “naïve provincial,” Pepa’s friend, takes refuge in Pepa’s flat to avoid the police because she had a fling with a man who happened to be part of Shiite terrorists group planning on attacking a plane to Stockholm. Carlos and his rigid and unpleasant girlfriend Marisa (Rossy de Palma) happen to go to Pepa’s flat by coincidence since she decided to rent it. Carlos will find out Pepa was his father’s ex-mistress on this occasion. We can see from the plot already a comedy of characters and situation. Ivan represents an aging and coward Don Juan, around whom three very different women (an actress, a housewife, a feminist lawyer) evolve. Pepa is the melodramatic character because of her situation (she is pregnant and her lover left her.) the other characters are all comic: Carlos is the new feminized man, a little shy and clumsy yet as womanizer and unfaithful as his father, Marisa is funny because of her rigidity and atypical looks, Candela is the naïve provincial, Paulina, the bad-tempered feminist who does not mind hurting other women. The melodramatic line (Pepa’s pregnancy and inability to reach Ivan) and the comic elements (excessive coincidences and imbroglios) nourish each other  “much of the melodramatic genre is really put to work in the service of comedy and much of the comedy here is only melodrama pushed to an incongruous limit.”[5]

The beginning is mostly melodramatic, as it involves a display of emotions.The credits start with images which seem taken from women’s magazine of the sixties, with a nostalgic Mexican music, “Soy Infeliz” (I’m unhappy) sung by Lola Beltran. The music is used as a narrative tool, echoing the feelings of the main character, Pepa.

Added to the title, it definitely sets the film as “woman’s film,” – literally only – as Almodovar is often characterized as a “woman’s director.”[6] Pepa’s voice-over explains to the spectator a sad situation: the end of her couple, setting a melodramatic tone. Then we hear, what we guess is the lover’s voice in question, as if reading out loud a note written on the sleeve of the “Soy Infeliz” album (making the music “physically” intra-diegetic) saying “I never want to hear you to say ‘I’m unhappy.’ Yours, Ivan,” followed by a worrying music and a dollying close-up on a ticking clock and a frame of Pepa and Ivan, then on Pepa’s body, wearing a bright fuchsia pyjama, echoing both Pop-culture and Douglas Sirk’s bright aesthetic. Then, the next shot is a lateral tracking of Ivan walking against a Moorish background, “a mise-en-scène that immediately links his attitudes with the traditions of that [male-dominated] culture.”[7] We understand that is a dream thanks to the dissolve transition. As in a film noir, one could think it is a flashback or the typical tortured dream of the main protagonist. However, Ivan’s use of a mouth spray and the borrowed pitch he uses while walking along a myriad of women (each one of them representing a stereotype) sets a dash of comic tone, although the music remains worrying. The match cut the traffic light in the dream and what seems to be the red light of a projector makes the transition to the reality and Ivan dubbing an American film, with an insert on his lips and mike.This sequence is a mise-en-abyme on several levels. First, Ivan’s text ironically echoes Pepa’s feelings “Tell me how many men have you had to forget?”; it is reinforced through the crosscutting Pepa still sleeping shot in bird’s eye view. The shots/reverse shots of Ivan and the woman of the film (then voiceless, metaphorically, unable to have a say) epitomize the theatricality of Ivan in his own life, in the sense that he can only provide women with illusions, constantly avoiding to confront them. Secondly, the dubbing element is important in Spanish cinema history because it was a mean of censorship during Franco; indeed dubbing could allow changes of the original texts. Lastly, it is meta-filmic reflection on the fact that the film is post-modernist and referring to other films. The both matched-cut and cross-cutting with Pepa’s ticking clock and the film’s countdown add to the suspense and intrigue that is being woven.

Pepa is dubbing at her turn, just after having learned she was pregnant and missing Ivan’s call. There is a dollying forward to the projector frame from the inside, we see through that frame the actors in a high-angle shot. The music threatening and seems like a military march.

The film they are dubbing shows a couple getting married at the church. This film is not American since the bride is played by the same actress who plays Candela and that we see later in the film. The priest murmurs in her ear “My child, men mustn’t be trusted./Not even my husband?/You can never be too careful,” and hands her a condom. It is a comical satire of Spanish society, torn between the Church and post-Franco modernity. After this film, Pepa dubs alone the film which Ivan dubbed previously, a nostalgic guitar music starts. There is then a very stylized and usual birds-eye tracking, shot, following the blue ray of the projector against the reddish background. It is a direct allusion to Sirk’s lighting in All that Heaven Allows (1995). Indeed, in this film, the blue, unnatural lightning is used to represent negativity and the repressive rules of society that holds the widow from starting a new life. In Woman, the blue is also negative and associated with Francoist masculinity. Pepa, still from bird’s eye view, is completely encased in this light, illustrating her subordination to Ivan. This sequence is melodramatic, because the lines that Pepa has to say, in response to Ivan’s lines, have a cruel echo to her life, provoking her tears (by the same occasion provoking a sympathetic emotional response from the spectator) and fainting. When she lies on the floor in a canned angle shot, there is again this sharp contrast of blue and red, Pepa’s body making a diagonal partition between the two, showing her inner conflict between desire and Ivan’s coldness, or the conflict between femininity and masculinity. The fact that we see her through lenses of her fallen spectacles is a direct reference to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1955), setting the beginning more on a dramatic tone.[8]

All in all, the beginning, though a few pops of humour is mainly tragic, and this is mostly due to the use of music and a narrative emphasis that is very Hollywoodian.

 

The motorbike chase to the airport is incontestably comic. Lucia wearing a pink layette suit and puffy sixties style wig, handing two guns. Her style “satisfies Almodovar’s taste for kitsch, while simultaneously offering him an opportunity for a figurative representation of ideological retardment [i.e. Francoist patriarchy.]” The mambo and rhythmic music accompanies this comic and suspenseful action. There is an allusion to Superman (Richard Donner, 1978) when Lucia’s head is framed in profile, hair blowing backwards; the music is also typical of the “villain” music. This appeal for the comic aesthetic is a popular reference to the wave of Hollywood films which flooded and met success amongst the Spanish audiences. Lucia’s black make-up à la Twiggy gives her an evil look. Her head appears as comically floating when she is on the moving walkway. Almodovar plays with the diagonal lines created by the escalators, giving a geometric and steeled, Marvel aesthetic. To prevent Lucia from shooting Ivan, Pepa pushes a trolley – of which we have a dollying “point of view” from – to shove her. There are numerous of unusual and stylized camera movements along the film such as dollying at a “feet angle-shot.” coupled with uncanny angle shots, giving a rhythmic and aesthetic quality to the film (there are elements of actions) but also mirroring the instability of the protagonists.

Lucia’s failed attempt to kill Ivan is both comical and tragic. Comical because she ridiculously falls, desperately shooting in the air, showing her knickers, borrowing from the Slapstick and Screwball comedies. Tragic because her pain and folly are genuine and due to Ivan – and by extension to the old Spanish patriarchal order.

Pepa finally gets to talk to Ivan but does reveal her pregnancy. She leaves the airport with a sad violin music. The next shot is that of her, this time entering her flat – the sad music stops when she slaps the door. The flat, first a place of destruction becomes, if not exactly a place of equilibrium, a element of empowerment and independence.   The flat (studio-created) is a reference to the flat in the Hollywood comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco, 1953.)

The last scene is ambivalent, yet it is leaning more towards positivity. the scene when Pepa is back to her flat is shot in a craning plan-sequence, showing her evolving in joyful disorder, the policemen, the repairmen and Candela and Carlos still napping because of the sleeping pills gazpacho. The light is soft, typical of a comedy. The next shot is that of Marisa, finally waking up. Both Marisa and Pepa are wearing bright red, echoing their new liveliness; however the deckchair is blue, as well as the blue and red-stripped parasol, reproducing the colour pattern of the beginning, but in a more harmonious way. The lighting, which seems to be that of aspotlight is quite hard and theatrical, emphasizing their centeredness in the terrace, which appears darker. The music, “Teatro,” asserts the artificiality of the scene.

Pepa is pregnant and empowered, Marisa says she has lost her virginity in her dream, to which Pepa replies “Now you say that, you’ve lost that hard look that virgins have,” perhaps referring to the end of Francoist womanhood for a freer one.

 

 

To conclude, we can say that both the beginning and the ending are more melodrama than comedy sad melodramatic tone/happier melodramatic tone. The Music sets or emphasizes the mood of the sequences as a narrative tool, either sad or comical.

The geometrical/composed framing participates to the characters entrapement, while the more open framing accompanies a more hopeful mood.

The bright colours and lighting are a quote from Sirk and Hitchcock, as well as Pop aeshtetic. The characters represent a stereotype. The uncanny and stylized camera movements: quotes from other directors, as well as participating to the rhythmic quality of the comedy or the melodramatic emotions.

Contrary, to the woman’s film of the 1930s, the woman could only be sublimated through pain, self-abnegation and sacrifice;[9] here the comedy allows Pepa to an alternative ending, proper to Almodovar

who “challenges conventional configurations of the family to replace them with unorthodox alternatives.”[10]

 

[1] Barry Jordan and Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, “Post-Franco freedoms: La Movida,” in Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998), 114.

[2] Geoff King, Film Comedy, (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2002), 2.

[3] King, 2.

[4] Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised,” in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, Nick Browne ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1998), 42.

[5] Mark Allison, A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovar (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 122-3.

[6] Jordan, 115.

[7] Evans, 33.

[8] Evans, 15.

[9] Evans, 23.

[10] Jordan, 115.

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