What Have I Done to Deserve This?
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Pedro Almodóvar scored his first international hit with What Have I Done to Deserve This?, cementing his reputation as Spain's bad-boy director of darkly comedic melodramas. Many of the themes that dominate Almodóvar's later films are evident here, especially his sympathetic affection for downtrodden women like Gloria (Carmen Maura), an exhausted housewife who's addicted to No-Dōz tablets and spends 18-hour days cleaning apartments and tending (just barely) to her teenage sons (one deals drugs, the other offers sex to local perverts), neglectful husband, and looney-tunes mother-in-law--all of whom have a particular knack for getting on her nerves. Toss in a prostitute neighbor, an accidental murder, and a pet lizard named "Money," and you've got the makings of a soap opera by way of Luis Buñuel and John Waters, served up with Almodóvar's distinctive blend of compassionate humanity and kinky outrageousness. --Jeff Shannon
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The film’s kitchen sink social satire works primarily as an inversion of the conventions that define Italian neo-realism. Like the early films of Rossellini, Fellini, Visconti and De Sica it is shot on location with little known actors and with a nod here and there towards documentary in its depiction of working class life. The film opens on a high shot looking down at a square where a film crew are assembled. Into their midst walks a dowdy repressed-looking middle aged woman. The cameras come alive and start to follow her as she enters a martial arts gym to Bernardo Bonezzi’s Nino Rota-esque music playing on the soundtrack. This woman is named Gloria (the amazing ever-versatile Carmen Maura) and the film charts her wretched everyday existence. She works 18-hour days as a cleaner and house-drudge for her husband, two kids and mother-in-law. So far so per the neo-realist remit, but the film’s inversion is stated immediately by a foregrounding of Gloria’s sexual repression. We never for one minute think of Anna Magnani ever going without sex let alone suffering from it, but here we have Gloria hilariously aping the members of a kendo class, her mop replacing the shinai (sword) as the phallus she is so desperately in need of. Immediate relief would appear to be on hand via a kenshi named Polo (Luis Hostalot) who invites her into his shower and attempts to take her up against the wall. A scene poised for tension-relieving orgasmic passion goes limp as a noodle, the man proving to be impotent (it’s no surprise in an Almodóvar film that he turns out to be a policeman!). Poor, humiliated and still sex-starved, Gloria has to trudge home where we meet the members of her dysfunctional family; her abusive autocratic male chauvinist pig taxi driver husband Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López) who treats her as a slave demanding his dinner, his shirts be ironed, his wife stay at home (even though she has to make the money he fails to put on the table), and his sexual demands be met (without satisfying hers); her dotty soda pop/cake loving diabetic mother-in-law Abuela (Chus Lampreave) who won’t stand her son being abused (!), miserly refuses to help, (mis)educates her grandchildren and has a passion for gambling and lizards; and her two children – the drug taking/dealing 14 year old Toni (Juan Martinez) and the 12/13 year old self-declared homosexual Miguel (Miguel Ángel Harranz) who lets old men sleep with him before being sold by Gloria to a pederast dentist (the salacious Javier Gurruchaga leering deliriously) to pay for his expensive bridge. Her life a complete travesty of stressful heartbreak, Gloria takes to painkillers and descends into drug addiction. Contrast all this with the Italian family as depicted in neo-realist films – gutsy mother, rough but well-intending father, poor maligned grandparents and the tragedy of everyday life mirrored in the faces of angelic children – and the topsy-turvy satire is obvious. It is also side-splittingly hilarious. I especially love granny teaching Toni the difference between romantic and realist writers and dad’s brazen and completely straight-faced chauvinist demands for dinner from his obedient wife who scrapes to his every order while he has to buy a bottle of pop from his miserly mother.
As in Italian neo-realist films, the tragedy of family life is contrasted and heightened through other characters living in the same building, especially the whore next door Cristal (the wonderful Verónique Forqué in a role initially offered, but turned down by Victoria Abril), Gloria’s best friend who is a rich source of wicked comedy – she will shag anyone for money or drugs (even propositioning Gloria’s kids), wears the most outrageous costumes (designed by Cecilia Roth!) and presides over her tacky love den with the preening delight of a voracious dominatrix. Highlights include her looking for a whip to satisfy a customer, donning a ridiculous wedding dress to seduce Miguel in order to score heroin from his brother, and a hilarious scene where Gloria is coerced into watching an ‘exhibitionist’ client talk dirty, strip and then screw. Her role is a parody perhaps of the whore at the center of the love triangle in Rocco and his Brothers (1960, Visconti), but far from the tragedy essayed in that film, Cristal has eyes on a bright future – as a Las Vegas showgirl, hence listening to an English radio program while she attempts to ‘cure’ Polo of his impotence. Representing the diametric opposite type of woman is the mousy sexually repressed Juani (Kiti Mánver who will play the same type as the reptilian ‘feminist’ lawyer in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown ), a tyrannical monster mother who terrorizes her poor daughter Vanessa (Sonia Hohmann) for reminding her of her husband who (understandably!) has left her. Her brutality is darkly funny and induces telekinetic powers in Vanessa who hilariously takes her revenge by trapping her in a lift, moving a vase to fall on her head, and then later adopting Gloria as a surrogate mother by helping her decorate simply by moving furniture, wall paper and paste with her mind. Completely off the wall, these sequences are a hoot and again showcase Almodóvar’s comic bravura. The director also gets to make a ridiculous appearance ‘singing’ an opera aria to his drag partner Fabio McNamara in a TV CM. His pirouette is as bizarrely outrageous as the coffee CM which has Cecilia Roth’s face disfigured by service in bed. TV is an ever-present part of (especially) working class life and (as in all his other films) Almodóvar brilliantly sends it up as a determinator/barometer of what passes as ‘average’ behavior in the wider world.
Where the film departs from neo-realist precedent is in the depiction of outside middle class characters and a trip outside Spain to her old ‘friend’ Germany. Seen simply as a kitchen sink satire, this element of the film may appear to be tacked on, but it fits superbly into the underlying political subtext which I will come onto shortly. One of Antonio’s taxi fares turns out to be the unsuccessful writer Lucas Villalba (the bearded Fernando Rey lookalike Gonzalo Suarez) who is en-route to Cristal for an afternoon poke. He cottons on to Antonio’s past employment in Germany as chauffeur to a German singer named Ingrid Muller (Katia Loritz) and especially his ability to forge handwriting. Propositioned to make a mint by forging Hitler’s diary Antonio self-righteously baulks at the criminal suggestion. Knowing Antonio is in love with Frau Muller Villalba goes to Berlin to get the woman to come to Madrid in order to convince him to do the forgery. Cristal has meanwhile introduced Gloria to the Villalbas including Lucas’ lazy bourgeois wife Patricia (Amparo Soler Leal) who thieves from her psychiatrist brother-in-law Pedro (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) to get the money for the Berlin airfare. Gloria cleans the homes of both brothers which turn out to be equally as chaotic as her own. Class status may differ, but everyone is broke regardless. Pedro is also an alcoholic besotted with his lost love Marisol and is every bit as screwed up as the worst of his patients. Naturally it is to him that Polo the impotent cop goes (with his fake girlfriend Cristal!) for professional help in another classic comic scene. It is through the connection between Antonio and Ingrid Muller that the film’s smattering of plot is generated. Gloria and Antonio at war with each other over money (or lack of), Antonio turns all sweet when Frau Muller calls his home and he smooches her in German. Gloria is struck by jealousy especially as he listens to Frau Muller singing a German song all the time and orders her to iron a shirt so he can meet his love at the airport. Gloria’s refusal is met with a face-slap which is counter-acted by her asserting her virility kendo-style by bashing him on the head with a giant hambone. Antonio’s head catches the kitchen counter and he dies. The film borrows heavily from Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter as the resulting police investigation (Polo again of course!) fails to find the murder weapon and squishes the only witness (a blood-splattered lizard), meaning Gloria escapes the consequences. Antonio gone, his mother decides to return to her village with Toni. A return to roots and the promise of rejuvenation is a key theme in Almodóvar and it gets its first statement in this film. Abuela’s companion on the bus turns out to be Francisca Caballero (Almodóvar’s own mother in the first of 4 cameo appearances for her son) and the assumption is grandmother and grandson will start their lives over free of the domineering father. Gloria is left alone and suicidal, her balcony jump saved by the return of her youngest son Miguel who has tired of the lustings of his dentist guardian. Everyone in this particular family gets to start again (apart from Antonio of course!) and the final shot of the road is something of a signature send off for this director, the road of life finishing so many of his other films.
This film is a wonderful satire that works beautifully on the surface level of kitchen sink drama turned into dark comedy. The mayhem is beautifully judged by the director who directs an ensemble of pitch perfect performances. The satire on neo-realism is knowing and well-judged, the jokes rolling in so fast we barely have time to catch breath let alone notice the altogether deeper and (for this director) pertinent portrait of Spain and the societal dislocation that was very real in the early 1980s. Franco’s fascist dictatorship had effectively finished two years after his death when the old administration collapsed and a general election in 1977 saw the advent of democracy. The transition wasn’t as simple as that though. Franco’s legacy was controversial with many people still upholding the right wing values he championed even if many others celebrated their newly gained freedoms. Almodóvar has always been on the side of the newly liberated democracy and in this film he depicts a Spain divided into conflicting social groups all searching for their identity in a new society. The central dysfunctional family represents a dysfunctional Spain with the surrounding characters representing specific types who react differently to the birth of democracy.
Quite clearly the father Antonio represents enduring fascism and a right wing assertion of a continuation of male patriarchy. He sees himself as the bread winner and his wife as the person who should stay at home and mind the kids (it should be remembered that even as late as the early 70s Spanish women were expected to stay home. They weren’t even allowed to have bank accounts without the signed assent of a male family member). The male chauvinism I have already described fits the type as well as his rejection of Villalba’s offer to forge Hitler’s diary (that would be a crime abhorant to a strict upholder of law and order!) and the fear of his mother. Abuela named her son after Saint Anthony, a Franciscan Catholic priest whose picture (Strozzi’s “Saint Anthony of Padua Holding Baby Jesus”) hangs on her bedroom wall. St. Anthony was famed for his knowledge of scripture and a veneration of hand-written books before the invention of the printing press. He’s the patron saint of finding things or lost people, and of poor people. He’s also considered to be a marriage saint famous for reconciling couples. This is all commented on with wicked irony through Antonio who prides his ability at copying handwriting, finds his lost love Ingrid Muller through chance, presides over his poor family by keeping them poor and effectively destroys his own marriage with Gloria by chasing after an old flame. Remember – the Catholic Church was the very instrument used by Franco to enforce the prevailing patriarchy which strangled Spain for so long.
Furthermore, Antonio has a fond affection for Germany. Hitler was Franco’s main supporter during the Civil War and German support was key throughout World War Two when Spain stayed officially neutral but unofficially dependent on her northern ‘friend’. Antonio’s love for Frau Muller equates precisely with Spain’s love for Germany and this is spelt out very clearly in the lyrics of the song he keeps singing in German and forces Gloria to listen to throughout the film:
“Don’t Cry Just About Love” (“Nur nicht ans liebe weiner” – Theo Machaben / Hans F. Beckman)
It’s the same,
Whomsoever we love,
And whoever breaks our heart.
We are driven by fate
And the end is always a sacrifice.
We came from south and the north
With hearts so odd and speechless
That’s how I became yours
And I can’t tell you why.
For when I lost myself to you,
I thought of another.
So the lie was already born
on the first night.
Don’t cry just about love,
There are more than just the one on Earth.
(NB: I post the text of the compete song in both German and English as a comment at the bottom of this review)
In the context of the film this song refers on one level to the love of Antonio for Frau Muller while also being in a relationship with Gloria. On another level it refers to the love of Spain for Germany while forgetting the ‘real’ Spain. The selling out of a wife is equated with the selling out of a country and is chauvinistically justified because all love is the same and is not to be cried about! In the film we learn Antonio has copied the work of a Nazi writer and it is implied he is still connected to Germany’s Nazi past through Frau Muller. The fact that he is excited about rekindling this past relationship is quite clearly a symbol for the persistence of fascism in Spain even after the 1977 general election. It is significant that in 19 films the only time Almodóvar takes us away from Spain (apart from a fleeting visit to a Caribbean market in High Heels ) is here, and the country he chooses is Germany. Not only does he connect Spain and Germany through fascism, but he also connects specifically the Spanish and German bourgeoisie which was where the core of fascist support lay. Antonio’s mcp behavior is not excused in this film (indeed it is punished!), but to an extent the domestic crisis that leads to his death is brought about by the bourgeoisie manipulating him. This perhaps mirrors the circumstances under which the Spanish Civil War began back in 1936, only in this film it is democracy that wins out through Glora’s glorious assertion of her long-repressed sexuality. In this Almodóvar is re-writing the civil war by giving it the (for him!) correct ending.
We already met a male chauvinist fascist pig husband in the rapist policeman in Pepi, Luci, Bom and in virtually every Almodóvar film these figures keep reappearing to remind us of the persistent fascism that plagues Spain. Indeed with this director the male characters generally fall into one of two groups. The first is the Antonio type who yearns to return to the fascist brutality of the past and its bourgeois patriarchy. The second is the free emancipated type keen to celebrate the new found freedom. In this film this is exemplified by the two sons who between them revel in the freedoms denied to Almodóvar himself when he was growing up in Franco’s Spain. Both are independent – one has openly declared his homosexuality and the other is playing around with drugs. Both things were forbidden under Franco and both things the director had yearned to do as a child. When Miguel returns to his mother’s nest he has a proper chance at doing something with his life now the patriarch has been deposed and when Toni returns to the village “to work the land” it is also the picture of rejuvenation and hope for the future of Spain. The cop Polo is an interesting character. Normally in an Almodóvar film the policeman would be a fascist upholder of law and order, but here it’s as if the general election has robbed the police of their potency. Polo isn’t keen on investigating Antonio’s death even when Gloria confesses to him, and seems to be as content as her kids to enjoy the new democratic freedoms (sex lessons with Cristal, snorting cocaine) even though the transition to democracy has castrated his powers. His balls have been cut off so as to be effectively neutered.
Almodóvar treats his women the same way as the men. The fascist here is clearly Juani, the general election clearly signaling the freedom for her long suffering husband who has left her in the lurch. She is clearly an extension of Luci from Pepi, Luci, Bom, a mousy masochist who yearns for the punishments of the past. She wears conformist gray and brown throughout and exerts her tyrannical power by traumatizing her poor daughter. For Almodóvar this is clearly a definite character type in Spanish society and is caricatured to underline the point. Opposed to Juani are the women reveling in their new-found freedom. Most obviously there is Cristal who puts her heart and soul (as well as considerable entrepreneurial nous) into her work to achieve her American Dream of making it to Vegas. There’s a peach of a confrontation between these two opposite character-types when Cristal expresses her shock at the way Juani treats her daughter. “Since when do you have feelings?” Juani counters deliciously, “I thought you only feel through your c***.’ Gloria is the woman in transition who perhaps represents the majority – the putdown drudge who finally sees the light, and the film is centrally about how she (and many like her) finds her own identity in changing circumstances. Antonio wants her to conform and be a typical stay at home dowdy hausfrau, but she undergoes a transformation and finally breaks through her sexual repression by killing her repressor with a phallic hambone. She becomes a symbol for the new liberalized (sexualized) democratic Spain and Almodóvar celebrates her as a role model he wants all women suffering under domestic fascism to emulate. In film after film Almodóvar will feature strong women and celebrate their friendship/sisterhood bonding together to throw off the chains of the dominant male patriarchy. This theme was stated clearly in Pepi, Luci, Bom and gets its definitive statement in the majestic melodrama Volver made some 26 years later. That film will also celebrate ‘the great return’ to roots, to the village of Spanish folklore (‘Volver’ means ‘return’ in Spanish) which is voiced in this film through the character of Abuela and Almodóvar’s own mother. In one sense they are the mothers of the generation that traumatized a nation through fascism, but in another they are guiltless because they were themselves traumatized and denied freedoms when they were young. In this sense although we can see Abuela’s child-rearing as resulting in the repressive male chauvinist machismo of Antonio, one can hardly judge her when she herself was raised to be a household drudge denied the freedoms Gloria finally seizes at the end of this film.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? is fascinating for putting in front of us all the character types that will re-appear throughout the rest of Almodóvar’s films. He is not thought of primarily as a political director, but politics are stated overtly here (especially through the unprecedented trip to Germany) and re-appear more subtly in later films such as High Heels, Live Flesh (1998), Bad Education (2004), Broken Embraces (2009) and I’m So Excited! (1913). Just because Almodóvar doesn’t obviously refer to politics in most of his other films doesn’t mean they are not there. It’s as if he assumes audiences know the political/historical background (his films are addressed unashamedly to Spanish audiences and make few concessions to foreigners) and doesn’t have to constantly refer to it, at least not obviously so. He does refer to it explicitly in this film and posits characters who are searching for their identity in a new Spain, but in future films this search for identity is refracted through sexuality and a long series of characters who have ‘gender issues.’ A repressed homosexual growing up in the Franco years but suddenly given the freedom ‘to be himself’, Almodóvar makes the search for sexual identity and an expression of hitherto repressed taboo desires the center of attention in his films. This is expressed most succinctly perhaps in All About My Mother (1999) by the transsexual character Agrado who points to the various operations performed on her body as making her “who she really is.” The search for political/social identity and the search for sexual identity are opposite sides of the same coin as a close study of this remarkably lucid film abundantly reveals.
Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Any Resemblance To A Coincidence Is Accidental"
Some wonderful performances, and even moments real emotion sneaking in here and there. It does start to wear down by the end, and doesn't add up to a lot (other than being part off the young Almodovar's stick in the eye of the old repressive Spanish order) , but it's unique and kind of lovable, like it's characters.
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