Analyse and discuss the
construction of femininity in Mujeres al borde.
The film, “Mujeres al borde”, is one of Pedro Almodóvar’s earlier films, and
one that gained him international recognition after its release in 1988.
Almodóvar’s films typically represent
feelings and emotions that are common to us, through unusual and peculiar
Feelings such as sexual obsession and the pain of loss often feature in his
films. This can be seen in “Mujeres al
borde”, with the suffering of different women, most notably Pepa, the protagonist. The film is set
in Madrid and starts one week after Pepa’s
ex-lover, Ivan, moves out of her
penthouse apartment. She remains obsessed with him and throughout the film is
constantly trying to get in contact with him to give him the news that she is
pregnant with his child. “Mujeres al
borde” combines influences of Hollywood screwball comedy, with the
traditional recurring theme of the abandoned woman.2 We
can see various examples of these styles being merged together; items are
comically thrown out of the smashed windows of Pepa’s apartment with elements of comedy seen throughout the film,
yet the ongoing narrative of women’s abandonment remains a focus.
In the film, there is a strong
focus on femininity, with the cast being made up almost entirely of women. Pepa isn’t the only woman to struggle
with abandonment and suffering: Pepa’s friend
Candela suffers from the actions of a
Shiite terrorist who seduces her and takes over her home; as well as the
narrative of Lucía (Ivan’s ex-wife) who is driven crazy by
the thought of him and the sound of his voice. In this essay, I will analyse
and discuss the construction of femininity and the different ways in which it
is presented to the audience, and how it changes throughout the film. To do
this I will focus on different characters, scenes, and cinematographic techniques.
Starting with Pepa; through her narrative we can see great change in her
character as she goes from being weak and dependent on Ivan at the start of the film,
to being confident and independent by its end. At the start of the film when we
are first introduced to Pepa, we only
hear her voice before it is replaced by the voice of Ivan in the dubbing studio.3 We
continue to hear his voice, but this time from the answerphone inside Pepa’s penthouse apartment before we
finally see Pepa herself. In fact, we
only see Pepa’s body as she lies on
her bed asleep under the influence of sleeping pills with her face hidden. This
sequence shows the extent to which Pepa’s
life revolves around Ivan’s. The
fact that his voice even comes from inside Pepa’s
apartment whilst she remains motionless and asleep emphasises the fact that it
is Ivan, not Pepa, who is in control of Pepa’s
life. Ivan is able to continue with
his life and continue working in the dubbing studio, but due to the sleeping
pills made necessary by her loss of sleep over Ivan, Pepa is confined to a disorganised and unproductive state.
This associates femininity with silence and suffering: women not being able to
stand up to the dominance of men.
However, Pepa’s character begins to change and we start to see a different
side to femininity not presented in the opening parts of the film. Whilst Pepa continues to try and get in contact
with Ivan, he continues to avoid her
but carries on sending messages to her answerphone making excuses. Pepa begins to see through Ivan’s deceptive lies, and starts
retaliating and answering back to him, albeit by responding verbally to the
recorded messages on her answerphone. She begins to reject the roles that
society is placing on her. This can be seen when she says to herself, “I’m sick of being good,” before
preparing a spiked jug of gazpacho
with the aim of sedating Ivan.4 Here,
she is no longer willing to take on the role of the submissive female in a
relationship, no longer accepting the preferences and decisions of her partner.
Smoking cigarettes during her pregnancy is another significant symbol of Pepa rejecting the roles enforced on her
by society: this time, the role of being a mother. Through these changes we
begin to see femininity portrayed as resilience, with Pepa willing to fight back against the oppression she suffers.
Despite Pepa’s new found willingness
to fight back, it is clear that confronting the messages on the answerphone,
smoking during pregnancy and attempting to sedate Ivan, will not result in any success on her part. Although we see
her become stronger and her character develop, femininity is still portrayed as
weak and perhaps helpless.
This all changes however, towards
the end of, “Mujeres al borde”, when Pepa’s courage bears fruit, finally overcoming her dependence on Ivan, and also her submissive behaviour
to others around her. When confronted by Lucia,
she is able to reject her and say,
“these past few days everyone has said “no” to me. Now its my turn to say
Furthermore, her new found strength
and independence rejects the widely accepted idea that women are kept under
control by men. Pepa is seen to have
become fully independent and self sufficient when she is able to throw her
telephone and answerphone out the window in frustration. This was her only
realistic way of communicating with Ivan,
and through removing these objects from her life, she is taking the
deliberate step towards independence, and away from the submissive nature of
her past.6 This new
found strength and courage is shown once again when Pepa successfully manipulates the male taxi driver into taking her
all the way to the airport, after he refused to drive any further due to Lucía riding along side the taxi firing
her gun at them. She comments in the back of the taxi that “he said he knew how to handle dangerous women” to trigger a
reaction from the taxi driver and make him fulfil her wish of reaching the
airport. At the start of the film, femininity is associated with a sense of
inferiority, as seen in a number of female characters including Pepa with Ivan, and Candela succumbing
to the Shiite terrorist. This labels femininity as being week and submissive to
the desires and will of men, but by the end of “Mujeres al borde”, it is clear that femininity and inferiority do
not go hand in hand, and that women hold a lot more power and control than many
people perhaps believe. Pepa is no
longer desperate to share the news of her pregnancy with Ivan and the film ends without Ivan
even finding out, despite Pepa having
the opportunity to tell him. Taking on the difficult role of parenthood on her
own, further emphasises her new found strength and courage.
Almodóvar actually goes beyond
representing femininity through narrative. By using unconventional cinematographic
techniques, emphasis is placed on the objects that represent women’s
intensifying their presence. Close ups and reduced framing surrounding these
objects such as Ivan’s mouth and the
microphone in the dubbing studio create an intimidating mood which reflects the
irrationally intimidating presence of men hanging over femininity. Low-angle
shots are also used by Almodóvar to show Pepa’s
feet as she paces up and down in her apartment towards the end of the film.
This slightly surreal close up of her feet quickly moving, has a similar feel
to the close ups of Ivan in the dubbing studio and the answerphone in Pepa’s penthouse. Through the similar
feel of these shots, we begin to see Pepa
in a position of power just like the earlier shots of Ivan. Through camera angles and different shots, Almodóvar is able
to back up the changes in Pepa’s character
and present femininity through her as strong and in control.
In “Mujeres al borde” there is also focus on femininity as constructed
by men and the public in general.8
During Pepa’s dream of Ivan at the start of the film, he
repeats different seductive lines to all the women that he walks past. We view
sequence in black and white to channel the vision of the public to remove all
distractions and purely focus on these women, who are items of desire for men.
The interactions between these women and Ivan
are shown to be extremely artificial, with the director Almodóvar intending to
create a gap between the reality of femininity, and femininity as constructed
by men and the outside world.
This difference between reality and
artificiality is shown through the character of Pepa in her day to day life, and her image on television according
to the outside world. When Pepa
enters the pharmacy to buy sleeping pills, the women there comment that she is
much thinner, as well as much less imposing and intimidating compared to the
way she is presented on television.9 The
women who make these comments have their faces hidden by beauty masks which
represents the importance that physical appearance has in women’s lives, which “points to femininity’s intensely
performative quality” 10 Clothes and make up are used by women in the
film to present themselves in ways that give them self confidence, and also to
boost their self image. The character of Marisa,
the fiancée of Ivan’s son Carlos, bases her identity on her self
image and how she presents herself to the outside world. However, her attempts
to perfect her physical appearance do not retract from the fact that she has
the same underlying insecurities that are commonly seen in other female
characters throughout the film. When she observes Pepa and Candela discuss
their suffering caused by their respective men, it consequently affects the way
she views herself, and she is no longer able to maintain her imposing facade,
as she becomes overwhelmed by insecurity and proceeds to seek confirmation from
Carlos of his love for her. This is a
key part of the construction of femininity in the film, that despite the
manufactured appearances that women such as Pepa
and Marisa present, they have an
underlying dependence on men.
al borde” has a layer which film studies professor Elisabetta Girelli’s “Power of the masquerade” labels as a
“narrative about love narratives”11 wherein
the viewer is shown written correspondence between characters through a fringe
character who comes across it, at different points in the film narrative.
Almodóvar uses notes between Pepa and
Ivan to present to us a “skeleton narrative” of their relationship,
such as one note written to Pepa from
Ivan saying, “I love you, I need you, I desire you, your Ivan.” 12
These generic and disjointed letters present Pepa and Ivan’s relationship
as a cliché. Through his portrayal of their relationship, the director
demonstrates a critical perspective on relationships that characterise
themselves by needy women and disinterested men.
Where needy women are concerned,
Candela is the paragon of feminine dependency. In her narrative, she meets a
man one weekend and falls in love instantly which means that when he returns to
her apartment with two other men, she is blind enough to let them stay and
becomes too afraid to say anything when she finds out they are Shiite
terrorists. Not only is she governed by the whims of her emotions, she is also
extremely naive. A caricature of femininity, Almodóvar makes her so
ridiculously naive, that through her, he ridicules the weak and irrational
nature of women. Everything Candela does is exaggerated, from her attempted
suicide to her persistent reliance on Pepa to get her out of trouble.
Throughout “Mujeres al borde” we can see Almodóvar repeatedly criticise the
melodrama of women. It is unclear whether his main intention is only to
challenge preconceptions of femininity, or to also promulgate his own view of
what femininity should be like. The latter can be deemed much more likely when
we note the stark contrast between the many examples of weak women, and Pepa’s
grand transformation into independence. The final scene when Marisa eventually
wakes up feeling liberated can be interpreted as the potential for women to
metaphorically wake up from the state of dependence and weakness that we see
throughout the film. This scene specifically evokes the question of what the
experience is that liberates her. Pepa notes that Marisa has lost the “cold
stare of a virgin” which is left partially open to interpretation. In some way
having a first sexual experience must contribute to the emancipation of a
woman. We know for sure that Pepa has completed her transition to independence,
and Marisa has managed to also. However, it is still unclear what makes this
transformation come about as they both achieve this in very different ways. As
the only real unanswered question in the story, ultimately the significance of
the film is in challenging us to think about what it is that can empower a
woman to rise above her own melodrama.
1Isolina Ballesteros, A Companion to Pedro Almodóvar (USA: Blackwell
Publishing Ltd, 2013), p. 368.
2 Ibid., p. 369
KRZ8es al bordeuss
theilmes of different characters, different stages, sumbissive and
inferiorityyble to wake up from their sta.
KRZ8es al bordeuss theilmes of different
characters, different stages, sumbissive and inferiorityyble to wake up from
3 Elisabetta Girelli, The Power of the Masquerade: Mujeres al borde de un ataque de
nervios and the Construction of Femininity (UK: Queen Mary, University of
London, 2006), p. 254.
4 Pedro Almodóvar, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios,
DVD (Spain: El Deseo, S.A. 1988)
5 Pedro Almodóvar, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios,
DVD (Spain: El Deseo, S.A. 1988)
6 Celestino Deleyto, Post modernism and parody in Pedro
Almodóvar’s Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, (UK: Forum for Modern
Language Studies, 1995), p. 58.
7 Isolina Ballesteros, 2013, p. 370.
8 Elisabetta Girelli, 2006, p. 254.
9 Ibid., p. 255.
10 Ibid., p. 253.
11 Elisabetta Girelli, 2006, p. 253
12 Pedro Almodóvar, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios,
DVD (Spain: El Deseo, S.A. 1988)