Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.
On paper, What Have I Done to Deserve This? sounds like a dour, depressing portrait of a woman on the brink of poverty. Our protagonist Gloria (Carmen Maura) is a frazzled cleaning lady who struggles for a family that couldn’t be less interested in her. She can’t even catch a break trying to cheat on her husband when her choice in gentlemen ends up being impotent. She’s addicted to caffeine pills and her sons have resorted to dealing drugs and prostitution. But this is Almodóvar, not De Sica. Instead, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is an absurd, darkly comic portrait of a woman on the brink of poverty.
Like most Almodóvar films, What Have I Done to Deserve This? follows a woman at odds with the rest of her world, particularly men. The family needs money, but Gloria’s angry husband Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López) doesn’t want her working and can’t come up with an alternative way to make money. TV commercials imply that a non-lazy husband can potentially scar a woman for life via coffee burns. Even her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave) serves as a domestic foil, keeping a pet lizard in the house much to Gloria’s chagrin. Compared to the other female characters, she’s low-key, being neither a telekinetic, a prostitute, eccentric oldster or a mother with strictness straight out of a Roald Dahl novel.
It is around Gloria that Almodóvar populates the film with eccentricity. Antonio, an expert handwriting forger, gets into a scheme with a writer to fabricate Hitler’s diaries. At the bank, tellers have holes so people can specifically give them decorative figurines. There’s a little girl with telekinetic powers. A lizard proves the only viable witness to a murder. And one of the sons gets sold to his pedophiliac dentist. A scene in a diner should end when a character storms off, but instead the film cuts to another diner patron who can imitate the sounds of antique cars. On a plot level, Almodóvar’s digressions they don’t necessarily add anything. These elements should clash with the (mostly) neorealist trappings of Gloria’s storyline. Instead, the strangeness enhances the mundane, creating confusing surroundings for a frustrated woman.
This is because Almodóvar wants to make realism and absurdism indistinguishable. He states his intentions early in the film: Gloria’s oldest son asks his grandmother which authors are realists and which are romantics, and she consistently mixes them up. Then there’s the title, a hilariously histrionic exclamation that encapsulates the subtext of Gloria’s character. She never says it, but you can see it in her eyes the whole time. It helps that Almodóvar’s direction is subtle, right down to Ángel Luis Fernández’s cinematography, mostly composed of medium shots and minimal camera tricks. The effect is strangeness and eccentricity treated as perfectly normal, even when the film goes on its many weird digressions.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? might be the only grasp at realism where the beaten-down protagonist manages to solve nearly every single one of her domestic problems. In the end, as the camera pans around Gloria’s empty house, we get a strange sense of relief. A movie like this shouldn’t have such a tidy resolution. We expect Gloria to work herself death or maybe die in an accident to show us the senselessness of life. Instead, Gloria gets some peace and quiet and a family pared down to a manageable size. And that’s the most absurd of all.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? shows us the early days of an acclaimed filmmaker- a young artist who feels free to digress as his fancies drive him. Despite its darkness, it’s loose and playful and shows off what will quickly become the director’s trademarks.
by Danny Djeljosevic
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