The Almodóvar Project:|
What Have I Done to Deserve This?
Released in 1984
Gloria takes her escapes where she can; screenshot from What Have I Done to Deserve This?
In the first two essays, I've made reference to Pedro Almodóvar's debt to John Waters as a filmmaker. I don't mean to overstate it — he obviously has other cinematic influences — but the Waters comparison in useful in considering Almodóvar as a maker of films. Like Waters, he's a gay man who came of age in a working-class environment, for which he clearly feels a great deal of affection. Also like Waters, Almodóvar's sexuality has given him a palpable sense of estrangement from the very culture that produced him, which in turn has provided him with the freakshow ammo that is his subject matter, a means with which to mount an assault on surrounding Spain as a culture-war guerrilla.
That last bit is important, both to understand Almodóvar and to differentiate his artistic and social aims from a director like Waters. John Waters... look, I love the man, to the extent that it's even possible to love someone you've never met from a continent away. He's one of my artistic heroes. And yet, it's difficult to compare his work with Almodóvar without noting the considerable range and depth that the Spanish director's work has over that of his American early inspiration.
Waters takes nothing seriously, save perhaps for personal freedom. It's why his early films work so hard to shock on so outlandish a scale, and — having established his territory — why his later films have gone on to abandon shock value for the delivery of his message to the greater, square world, in language that the greater, square world can understand. Hairspray works, and has worked for two films, a Broadway musical and counting, because Waters uses outsider hip to make the fight for racial intergration cool for the white middle class. I emphasize "white middle class," here. We feel for Tracy Turnblatt because she's a fat girl in a working-class family trying to do what's right, but also because she's our definition of normal in a world where her mother is either Divine or John Travolta in drag, and the world around her is weird specifically because she's poor. There's an arch level of irony to how John Waters views such an environment. As a child of working-class Baltimore, he's of them, but as a gay man who idolized Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey, he's not one of them. Even when he swears that he prefers drinking in biker dives to hanging with the Manhattan hipsters, it's impossible to look at Water's post-Desperate Living cinematic work without the strong assumption that he's writing and directing primarily for the middle classes to whom he long ago escaped.
Almodóvar doesn't have that kind of distance with his creations. Working with actors who put character over scenario, he leaves the poses and distancing devices in subservient positions to the story. Unlike Waters, Almodóvar is too much the populist to give irony or parody the central focus in his works.
Temptation arises, then fails to rise...
Which brings us to this week's movie, the 1984 black comedy What Have I Done to Deserve This? It stars his early muse Carmen Maura as Gloria, a poor working housewife dragged to her wit's end by what can only be described as a most outlandish set of circumstances.
Gloria makes her entrance by walking through the middle of a film crew as they tear down their set in the middle of a public square. It's kind of a pointless shot, as theu're otherwise never referenced in the film, but it looks good and makes for a nice, symbolic opening, so what the hell — a sound guy even mikes her for a few feet as she strolls by.
Once the credits pass, we see Gloria cleaning for a Japanese-style martial-arts dojo, specializing in the kendo swordfighting style. We're not even three minutes into the film before learning just how dissatisfied is Gloria with her life: Spying one of the kendo students stepping naked into the shower, she climbs onto him, only to be disappointed when her impromptu lover turns out to be impotent.
Back at home, Gloria's life is an endless series of frustrations: Her youngest son is sleeping with his best friend's father, her oldest son is dealing drugs on the side, her taxi-driver husband can't support his family, let alone his mother, who also lives in the small high-rise apartment they all share — which in turn keeps Gloria working odd jobs as a maid in addition to running herself ragged to maintain her household. The only things that seem to keep her going are the over-the-counter amphetamines she takes, along with the occasional glue and other household products that she sniffs.
Doctor Berciano lusts after his barely-adolescent patient, in the name of comedy.
Rounding out the cast are Gloria's neighbor, Cristal, a prostitute with dreams of traveling to Las Vegas to become an actress... yeah, that one perplexed me, too. There's also a writer who discovers that Gloria's husband can imitate anyone's handwriting, which gives him the idea to create a fake Adolf Hitler diary with the aid of a German heiress for whom Gloria's husband used to serve as chauffeur.
You'd think that all of the above would serve as the beginnings to a Waters-esque camp comedy, and you'd almost be right: On paper, the plot of What Have I Done to Deserve This? certainly reads like a John Waters film. The story's fulcrum rests on an incident in which a fight between Gloria and her husband becomes violent, leading her to fatally beat him over the head with a hambone, which in turn throws a number of subplots spinning wildly out-of-trajectory, all without Gloria ever getting fingered for the murder and yet ruining her life anyway.
And then there's the matter of Gloria's gay younger son, Miguel. Fairly early on in the film, desperate for cash, she agrees to sell Miguel to her pedophile dentist, in a scene as hilarious as it is utterly cringe-inducing — Javier Gurruchaga's performance as Doctor Berciano is so ludicrously over the top, and the script's refusal to treat the assumptions of everyone in the scene that this transaction is anything other than normal, right down to Miguel negotiating for perks in exchange for living with the obvious creep, left me both morally aghast and laughing myself silly. It must be said: John Waters would have been proud to have filmed such a thing.
And let's not even get into the bad mother with the telekinetic daughter, living a floor above.
Gloria's struggles, exemplified in a moment's action.
Despite all this, the movie comes across as pretty much the opposite of a Waters film. While events within the film may be played for laughs, our protagonists' circumstances are anything but funny. What Have I Done to Deserve This? is about people flailing uselessly in the grip of grinding poverty, while the people around them go blithely along with their lives, utterly unconcerned with the fates of Gloria and her family. With her husband dead, her older son Toni uses the money he earned dealing drugs to take his grandmother (the always delightful Chus Lampreave) back to live in the small town of her youth, effectively abandoning his mother. Gloria, meanwhile finds it harder and harder to get her "little white pills," and despite stone cold getting away with murder, it only seems to leave her in a dead end.
One night, while cleaning the Japanese dojo, she finds herself swinging a practice sword with all the fury of a woman at the end of her rope, when the policeman who investigated her case — by coincidence, he's also the kendo student who couldn't get it up for her at the beginning of the film — walks past her on his way out the door. Impulsively, Gloria screams out loud that it was she who murdered her husband, causing the policeman to tell her to keep it down, or someone might hear her. Even Gloria's confessions of guilt go ignored.
After seeing off her older son and mother-in-law, Gloria returns to her apartment, walks to the balcony and leans over, staring many stories down to the pavement below. "Will she jump? the director plainly dares us to wonder... when the doorbell rings. Gloria answer it to find her younger son Miguel, who heard about what had happened and, abandoning his pedophile-dentist lover has returned to her. He was getting bored with all the pampering, he tells her, and besides, she needs a man around the house.
Happy ending, everybody!
It's not exactly a feel-good ending, but it feels surprisingly real, and it leaves us with the sense that with the return of Miguel, Gloria has found some solace from her troubles at last. The outrageous situations and shocking circumstances have fallen away, revealing what is, in the end, important: a mother holding her son and hoping that whatever comes next will be better than what has come before. There's no real hint that it will be better, of course, but there's always the hope that it can't get any worse. Sometimes, that's all you have to go on, and sometimes it's enough.
John Waters couldn't make such a film, wouldn't know how to make such a film. Emotional gut-punches just aren't his thing, but they are increasingly becoming Pedro Almodóvar's thing. Waters may have the brain, but Almodóvar has the heart.
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