VOD film review: What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Ivan Radford | On 28, Aug 2015
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Carmen Maura, Gonzalo Suárez, Luis Hostalot, Ryo Hiruma
Watch What Have I Done to Deserve This? online in the UK: MUBI UK
Almodóvar’s fourth film, What Have I Done to Deserve This? (or ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?) sees a shift away from his earlier madcap moviemaking towards the dark domestic comedy of his later work. Following put-upon housewife Gloria as she struggles to keep the family (and herself) together, it’s partly a critique of society’s patriarchal structures that were at their height under Franco.
Trying to make ends meet, Gloria befriends her neighbour, a prostitute called Cristal. “I don’t want you hanging around her,” demands Gloria’s unfaithful husband, “she’s a whore!” Gloria looks bluntly at him. “So what?”
It’s this defiant portrayal of females that typifies Almodóvar’s work, something that his muse Carmen Maura always portrays well in the lead. It’s only 45 minutes into the film that she’s confronting her husband, while wielding a frozen leg of ham.
These odd details offer a contrast to the realistic confines of Gloria’s life. So while our housewife heroine spends her time ironing shirts and putting up with her fairy cake-obsessed mother-in-law, surreal events flit past in the background. There’s her neighbour’s daughter, a redhead with telekinetic powers. And her son Miguel, who she sells to the dentist. Add to that her husband’s former employer, who is planning to forge a diary of Adolf Hitler, and Almodóvar’s bizarre sensibility perhaps has a common thread: all of them are refusing to conform to their roles in a post-dictatorial society.
While technically, the presentation isn’t as sharp as his future work, you can see the structural threads of melodrama coming together for the first time. The director situates his subplots in a more mature context than Labyrinth of Passion, but uses that to highlight his flashes of absurdity – one background vignette is a hilarious satire of a coffee advert, which segues smoothly into a Harvey Dent impression. This is an artist celebrating his freedom to subvert with an unnecessary flourish, simply because he thinks it’s funny. (He’s often right.)
What Have I Done to Deserve This? was the first of Almodóvar’s films to receive international distribution. Audiences from abroad could surely tell from the fusion of serious drama and subtle farce that it wasn’t long until the director’s first masterpiece, 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.