Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spanish: Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios) is a 1988 Spanish comedy film written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas. The film that brought Almodóvar to widespread attention in the English-speaking world.
"Soy Infeliz," a melodramatic heartbreak song plays over the opening credits, representing Pepa's state at the start of the story. She is sad.
TV actress Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura) lives in a penthouse apartment with cages of chickens, bunnies, and other animals that she's collected, like Noah. Her boyfriend Ivan (Fernando Guillén) has just left her and so she is in a depression and taking sleeping pills. Both she and Ivan work as voice-over actors who dub foreign films; the same voice he uses to sweet talk her (and all his women) are the same ones he uses in his work. He is about to leave on a trip, probably with another woman, and so has asked Pepa to gather his things in a suitcase he can pick up.
Pepa visits the doctor and receives important news, and so she does everything she can to speak with Ivan before he leaves. Pepa even calls his ex-wife Lucia (Julieta Serrano) who appears to be mentally unstable. In anger, Pepa prepares gazpacho, Ivan's favorite drink, and spikes it with about 30 sleeping pills, and also sets her bed on fire to burn a memento from their relationship. She leaves a note for Ivan, but then sees Lucia throwing it out, so she gets into a cab and follows her. The cab driver (Guillermo Montesinos) turns out to be an eccentric Mambo-lover with tiger-skin seats, and is a huge fan of Pepa's. They follow Lucia and discover her address. That night on the news, the huge story is that a group of Shiite terrorists has been caught, which freaks out Candela, Pepa's best friend, who now starts frantically calling Pepa. Pepa spends the whole night staking out Lucia's apartment, hoping to find Ivan. Although he doesn't come, she learns something she never knew: Ivan and Lucia have a son, meek and stuttering Carlos (Antonio Banderas).
Pepa returns home at dawn to find her answering machine filled with frantic messages from Candela (Maria Barranco). In anger she rips out the phone and throws it through the window onto the balcony. Candela finally arrives, still frantic, but before she can explain her situation, Carlos arrives with his snobby fiancee Marissa (Rossy de Palma) -- it turns out both of them are apartment-hunting, and by coincidence have chosen Pepa's penthouse to look at. Just as Pepa and Carlos figure out who one another are, Candela attempts suicide by jumping off the balcony, shortly followed by Marissa who accidentally drinks the gazpacho and is knocked out cold. Candela finally explains her situation: she fell in love with a man and let him and his friends stay with her, but it turns out they are the Shiite terrorists who've been caught, and now the police might come for her. Pepa sets out to see a lawyer to help Candela, and ends up getting the same cab with the same Mambo-loving driver. However, something seems strange about Paulina (Kiti Manver), the lawyer she visits. She is about to leave for Stockholm, Ivan calls the office at one point, and Paulina seems to know Pepa and is very rude to her. Meanwhile, Candela reveals to Carlos that the Shiites plan to hijack a flight to Stockholm that evening (turning it to Beirut, where the Shiite terrorists have a friend who was captured by the authorities), and so he, having fixed the broken phone, quickly calls the police, hanging up before (he believes) they can trace the call, then surprisingly kisses Candela.
Pepa returns and Lucia calls, announcing she is coming over to confront her about Ivan. Carlos reveals that she was in a mental hospital after Ivan left her, and has only now been released. Pepa, now sick of Ivan and no longer wanting to see him, heads back down and throws out Ivan's suitcase, just barely missing Ivan, who has arrived with Paulina on his way to the airport. He leaves Pepa a message while Carlos plays a record of "Soy Infeliz" (the song from the opening credits). In angry rage, Pepa yanks off the record and throws it out the window, where it ends up hitting Paulina. She then hears Ivan's message and once again rips out the phone and throws the answering machine back out the window, where it ends up landing on Paulina and Ivan's car. Back in the apartment, Lucia arrives, along with the phone repairman, and the police who've traced Carlos's call from earlier. Candela starts flipping out, but Carlos comes up with an idea and serves everyone the spiked gazpacho. The cops and repairman are knocked out, Carlos and Candela make out on the sofa and also fall asleep, and crazy Lucia grabs the cops's guns and aims them at Pepa. Pepa figures out that Paulina is the other woman Ivan is going to Stockholm with, and that their flight is the one that the terrorists are planning to hijack. Lucia reveals that she is still insane and only faked sanity when she heard Ivan's voice dubbed on a foreign movie. She throws the gazpacho in Pepa's face and runs off for the airport, holding a motorcyclist hostage as her driver. Pepa chases her and is joined by Ana (Ana Leza), the motorcyclist's angry girlfriend. They quickly hail a cab (you can guess who the driver is) and a mad chase ensues to the airport, with Lucia firing the gun at them. Lucia arrives at the airport, sees that Ivan and Paulina are about to pass security, and aims her gun at them. Pepa arrives just in time and thwarts the murder attempt by rolling a luggage cart at Lucia. Ivan runs over to Pepa, who is now mentally and physically exhausted after two days of trying to chase down her lover. Ivan offers to finally speak with her about whatever she has been trying to speak to him about, and for a moment, it seems he might even leave Paulina to take her back. But Pepa refuses, saying it's too late. "There was still time last night, this morning, even today at noon. But not any more." Having saved his life, she leaves the airport, and Ivan, for good.
Her home is a mess with a burnt bedroom, broken windows, a telephone ripped from the wall, gazpacho on the floor, her collection of animals running around loose, and several unconscious visitors all overdosed on sleeping pills. Pepa sits on her balcony where Marissa has woken up. The two women share a moment of tranquility at the end of a crazy 48 hours, and Pepa finally reveals what her big news for Ivan was: she's pregnant.
Pepa has broken the spell of desire. She no longer desires Ivan, but instead, now focuses on a life without him.
Pepa's pregnancy keeps her from smoking (which is how she ends up setting her bedroom on fire). However, later on in Paulina's office, she smokes and inhales without a thought about her baby. It is unclear whether this was intentional or if the director simply forgot the character was pregnant when filming this scene.
Also, after Pepa leaves the airport, it is never explained what happened to the Stockholm flight that the terrorists were supposedly going to hijack; however, between Carlos's phone call to the police and Lucia firing a gun in the airport, we can likely assume that flight was canceled.