What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Gloria is miserable. She's a maid, a housewife, a mother, and a drug addict who must put up with one son who's a drug dealer, a live-in mother-in-law who enjoys collecting sticks, another young son who sleeps with older men in the Greek fashion, a husband who only cares if his dinner is ready or not, and a lizard named Money who mocks her every waking moment.

Did you catch the part where I mentioned she's a drug addict? Now imagine her trying to deal with that when her pills start becoming scarce.

One of Pedro Almodovar's first films, What Have I Done to Deserve This? does contain much of his trademark deadpan humor and interesting female protagonists. When he isn't deciphering Gloria's masculine urges, Almodovar sneaks next door to her neighbor Cristal, a bubble headed prostitute who sees a bevvy of men interested in perversion more than sex.

"Yes, Ms. Prostitute, mind if I come over and bathe for a bit while you watch?"

Cristal's lifestyle is a stark contrast to Gloria's, as both women attempt to navigate the petty whims of men and make their way in the world. The strange irony afforded here is that we see Cristal's world-- that of a sex worker-- is one of immeasurably more freedom and far less judgement. When Gloria fails as a housewife, she's ganged up on and humiliated. When Cristal is dumb or ditzy, it's laughed off.

And Gloria can't stand it. Her and her family occupy a miniscule apartment in Madrid, one of those places where it's impossible to avoid one another without the use of a closet. Tensions flow between them until one final betrayal ends with how things must end in movies like this: murder.

Now, given those last four paragraphs, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a searing drama of a woman driven to the brink. Not really: for most of its run, What Have I Done to Deserve This? treads on the ground of a black comedy, using outrageous imagery and outlandishness taken at face value to both illuminate the character and tickle the audience. There's a few scenes of pedophilia played for some awkward laughs, and one little girl who lives in the same building that's developed telekinetic powers, but all of these are par for the course for Almodovar's unique flavor.

Almodovar's films have revealed that he has the same sort of obsession with show business that Woody Allen has-- film is a never ending struggle to create a world on screen as intricate as the realities people face every day. Where Allen bemoans this disconnect, Almodovar celebrates it-- his characters will cross through film sets, be filmmakers, obsess over stardom, or, like a scene in this film, watch something maddeningly strange.

Also, the son and grandma take in some film. It's good to get out every once in a while.

Here it's a commercial for coffee wherein a woman carefully recounts a night full of love making and arousal. Her breathless delivery denotes every lurid detail until we get to the punchline of the commercial: half of her face is scarred because her beau tripped over her shoes and spilled it on her. None of the grotesqueness of her appearance affects her delivery or pitch-- the coffee is good enough to associate with the sex, which was so great that the grimness of her new reality is forgotten.

This idea, of media attempting to display true passion but missing the point, is countered by Cristal's experiences as a prostitute. She attends to a client who's an exhibitionist, meaning that Gloria reluctantly must agree to watch. The man strips off his clothing, talking care to denounce the part of the body he's just revealed, promising that the real party here was going to his glorious cock.

Cut to a few seconds later where he's humping Cristal mercilessly while she stifles a yawn. Reality is never what's promised.

Other disappointing aspects of life: dentists who want to make love your young son, and how enthusiastic your son is about it.

While What Have I Done to Deserve This? suffers from a plethora of loose ends, and an ending that is a better punchline than a resolution. Unless you're doggedly determined to sketch out the mad genius behind Almodovar's work, you're not going to find much to feast on here. It's still early, and he's still finding his footing-- but the parts that stand out, from Gloria's dalliance in the shower to the iguana eye view during the murder investigation are dizzying in their possibilities.

It's rough, but it's interesting.

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Posted by Danny

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