Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Vote for Pedro

Pedro Almodóvar's career-defining, groundbreaking dark screwball comedy gets the Criterion treatment ‒ and is just as awesome as you'd expect it to be.
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There are few films which can combine failed romances, hysteria, spiked gazpacho, the fine art of voiceover acting, and get fully away with it. And, truly, Pedro Almodóvar is only one filmmaker in the world who could pull such a feat off, which he does flawlessly in his breakout hit, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios. Effectively managing to mix the classic Hollywood screwball comedy with the esoteric humanity of Jean Cocteau and the artistic stylings of Alfred Hitchcock, Almodóvar's acclaimed, award-winning tour de farce returns to delight once more as part of the Criterion Collection ‒ and is still just as beautiful as ever to behold.

Rechristened Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown for its international debut as the opening film of the 26th New York Film Festival, Almodóvar's one-of-a-kind black comedy finds the great Carmen Maura as Pepa Marcos, a television actress and voiceover artist in the pro-feminism, post-Franco Spain of the late '80s. Despite her success (I should point out to my fellow Americans that voiceover artists are treated with great respect in other countries), poor Pepa isn't herself lately. In fact, she's downright depressed ‒ a condition bestowed upon her after her partner in both work and in love, Iván (Fernando Guillén), chooses to run off with another woman.

It's not Iván's first offense, however: Lucía (Julieta Serrano) had previously fallen prey to his romantic tongue, which has left her with a devoted son named Carlos (a young Antonio Banderas) and a heap of mental problems. And now that it is clear he is not returning, Pepa is prepared to load her fresh gazpacho up with tranquilizers and go out the George Sanders way. Of course, in art, just as it is in life, death is never that easy ‒ especially when your ex-lover's house-hunting son suddenly stops by to look at the apartment along with his hideous bride-to-be, Marisa (the great Rossy de Palma, in her major debut, doing what she does best: playing a bitch).

To make matters all the more hectic, Pepa's frantic best friend Candela (María Barranco) arrives, her nerves nearing the breaking point as well as she has just discovered her recent romantic interest is a Shiite terrorist. Toss in several instances of items being chucked out of the window, the greatest mambo taxi cab driver in the history of film, and one of the most memorable police questionings ever ‒ to say nothing of that motorcycle chase/shoot-out scene, all in the name of love, mind you ‒ and, well, it becomes quite apparent why Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown made it to Empire magazine's 100 Best Films of World Cinema list.

While Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is no stranger to the digital home video medium in the US, its history with the same has been nothing of nerve-wracking itself. An MGM release in the early 2000s didn't include the best presentation (it was still new territory, after all, so things like quality and framing weren't as meticulous as they are today), and offered nothing more than a promotional trailer for its devoted viewers ‒ although it did sport alternate English and French audio options. Sony issued another subpar release a few years later as part of a box set (and later as a single disc), though they didn't bother with the bad alternate language dubs.

Thankfully, all of that is behind us now, as the folks at the Criterion Collection not only understand the film itself, but its fanbase, as well. Presented via a gorgeous new 2k digital restoration (as supervised by Pedro Almodóvar and his executive producer brother, Agustín), these Women have never looked lovelier. The video presentation here is so beautiful and flawless, it will make you want to break down and cry (in a good way). The image is so crisp and clear, I noticed something I had previously never seen: a sole, stubborn hair protruding from Fernando Guillén's freshly-shaved chin during a close-up in the recording room. It's that good, kids!

Taking up as much room as it can on the BD-50 disc, Criterion's dynamic restoration is complimented by two DTS-HD MA soundtrack options, one in 5.1, the other in 2.0, both of which are in the film's native Castilian tongue (and let's face it, people that terribly-dubbed English audio track from the old MGM DVD ‒ while amusing ‒ wasn't all that great anyway, as much of the film's wit and direction was lost in the translation) and bring out the best from everything the film has to offer (which is a lot), right down to the marvelous Hitchcock-style score by the late Bernardo Bonezzi. The newly improved English subtitles are easy to read and never prove to be distracting.

Special features for this must-own Criterion Collection release include a heap of newly-recorded (individual) interviews with Pedro Almodóvar, Carmen Maura, Agustín Almodóvar (all of which are in Castilian with optional English subtitles), and film historian Richard Peña, the former programmer for the New York Film Festival who has the enviable honor of having introduced Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to America. The original theatrical trailer for the film is also on-hand for this release (this time in 1080p, just like the rest of the bonus materials). Illustrated liner notes by critic Elvira Lindo conclude this spectacular, definitive release.

Highly Recommended.

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