What Have I Done to Deserve It? Almodovar’s First Hit in America

what_have_i_done_to_deserve_this_posterAlmodovar’s fourth film, the outrageous black comedy, “What Have I Done to Deserve It?” (“Que he hecho yo para merecer esto?”), was a turning point in his rapidly evolving career.  Among other things, it put Almodovar on the map of the international map as a major talent to watch.  After premiering to sold-out crowds as part of the New Directors/New Films series, co-sponsored by the New York Film Festival and the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art, “What Have I Done” became the first Almodovar picture to be released theatrically in the U.S.  The director could not have been happier, because the successful run of that 1984 film led to the release of his three former films.  It didn’t matter much that they all got mixed reviews, compared to the rapturous reception of “What Have I Done.”

One of Almodovar’s more realistic features, “What Have I Done” is an absurdist working-class comedy, in which most of the action unfolds within recognizable settings. The pre-credit sequence reveals a Madrid square as a film crew passes by, while a middle-aged woman is seen in the background.  The camera moves in on the woman—Gloria (Carmen Maura), a downtrodden housewife–as she looks back at the crew members, who are nailing signs to be used in their movie.

 

Gloria struggles to make ends meet with various cleaning jobs, in addition to the regular, exhausting work in her own home.  At first sight, Gloria is on her knees scrubbing the floor.  Looking up, she faces the Kendo students at the martial arts academy in their costumes, practicing sharp moves.  The next shot places Gloria and the students together in the same frame, indicating that their paths would inevitably crisscross.  Gloria imitates the blows made by the players, using her mop as a substitute for martial club.

 

Gloria, married but love starved and sexually frustrated, gets excited by the sight of muscular men playing at Kendo.  She unabashedly faces one man in the gym’s showers, scaling him up and down, including his genitals, allotting him the kind of gaze privileged to men when they size women.  During their attempted sexual act, Gloria remains fully clothed, while the man is naked.  The man, who happens to be a policeman, is impotent, and the irony is not lost on Almodovar that this archetypal male, a symbol of political power and sexual potency, fails to perform, not to mention that he has a small, flaccid penis.  Disappointed, Gloria picks up the phallic-shaped Kendo.  Later on, she uses the same assertive position to kill her husband.

 

Gloria lives with her macho husband, Antonio (Angel de Andres Lopez), a cab driver, her mother-in-law, and their two sons in a shabby apartment by the Madrid motorway.   Antonio, who had worked in Germany, still longs for his former employer-mistress, Ingrid Muller (Katia Loritz). His services for Ingrid involved copying letters that she had allegedly received from Hitler himself.  Antonio casually mentions this fact to a client and the latter suggests that they forge Hitler’s diaries for big profits.

 

Addicted to sedatives, Gloria goes to a pharmacy to get the drug No-Doz.  But the pharmacist, a big, chubby woman with peroxided blond hair and big stilt-like eyes, denies her request.  The pharmacist treats Gloria with contempt, which is the way Almodovar had scripted the role. But during the shoot, the director extended her reaction after casting a real pharmacist he had just met.  Incidentally, pharmacists abound in Almodovar’s work, usually portrayed in a negative way, denying services, needs, or pleasures (if it’s recreational drugs) to their clients (See “All About My Mother”).

 

Gloria is desperate to find money to pay the bills.  While she struggles with her own problems, her sons must learn their own survival strategies.  The elder son, Toni (Juan Martinez), deals in drugs, while the younger one, Miguel (Miguel Angel Herranz), sleeps around with older men, including the father of his friend Raul.  When Gloria confronts Miguel, the boy responds: “I’m the master of my own body.”

 

Miguel’s gay sexuality is not easily accepted by his brother Toni, and in a parodic critique, Almodovar shows how Toni tries to “cure” his brother by trying to get Cristal, their friendly prostitute neighbor, to seduce him.  His scene also makes allusions to another Minnelli melodrama, the controversial 1956 “Tea and Sympathy,” in which a sensitive boy (John Kerr) is pressured to see a prostitute to clear accusation by his classmates that he is a “sissy.”  (In the 2002 “Far From Heaven,” Todd Haynes also criticizes society’s phony beliefs and pressures to “cure” men of their homosexuals by forcing them to see a doctor and get treated, albeit in a serious way).

 

In a poignant scene that’s both heartbreaking and funny, Gloria “sells” Miguel to a pedophile, a nameless character referred to as the dentist (Javier Gurruchaga), after shrewdly negotiating his duties and her benefits. The dentist is intentionally constructed by Almodovar as a stereotype, an effeminate homosexual and a predatory one at that.

 

The defeated Gloria returns home to find her husband preparing to take Ingrid Muller for a drive; Ingrid had decided to pay Antonio a surprise visit.  They begin to argue—again–and when Antonio slaps Gloria, she attacks him with a leg of ham. Hitting his neck on the sink, he instantly dies. (A similar murder, in which a daughter kills her father in the kitchen, occurs in “Volver”).  Surprisingly for the viewers (but not for Almodovar), the police investigation doesn’t find any person guilty, again indicating Almodovar’s usual portrayal of policemen as ineffective and ineffectual (See “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown”).

 

Gloria watches forlornly as her elder son Toni leaves with his paternal grandmother (Almodovar’s regular, Chuz Lampreave) to her old rural village, so that he can work the land.  Obsessed with death, the grandmother likes to talk about it, informing friends of those who passed away lately. (Almodovar explores more fully the mores and culture of death, a recurrent theme in his work, in “Volver”)

 

What’s a desperate housewife to do?  Gloria walks restlessly in her apartment. She then leans over the balcony as if considering suicide.  But this is an Almodovar picture, which means that the women are resilient—not for nothing the heroine is named Gloria.  Out of the blue, as in fairytales in which the prodigal son returns home, an unexpected savior arrives.  Miguel reappears, claiming he had gotten bored with the older dentist.  Still missing his father, Miguel asks: “Did dad miss me?” only to be disappointed by his mother’s short response: “He was so busy, he didn’t even realize you were gone, but I missed you! “I know about father, and I am here to stay. This house needs a man!” Miguel proudly proclaims, while rushing into Gloria’s arms.  Ending satisfyingly as a coming of age tale, Miguel shows new maturity and strong determination to take care of his mother.

 

Miguel’s return is depicted as a warrior home from the hill, a reference to Vincente Minnelli’s 1960 family melodrama, “Home from the Hill,” for which Almoodvar has professed admiration.  Minnelli’s film also depicts a two generational family, in which the estranged patriarchal husband (Robert Mitchum) is concerned with the masculinity (and lack of) of his two son: his elder bastard son (George Pappard) and his younger, sensitive “mamma boy” (George Hamilton).

 

In this offbeat comedy, Gloria is a working-class woman “ruined” (“ajada,” in Spanish) by labor.  Her oppression and subordination suggest that sexual liberation and gender equality can only be achieved through struggle, which often calls for extreme action like criminal conduct.  Suiting the fable’s feminist nature, most of Gloria’s actions are invisible to the men onscreen.  Though statistically, the film contains more males than females, ultimately, none of the males, except for Miguel, matters much.

 

Though he is the younger brother in the film, Miguel serves as alter-ego for Almodovar older in real-life than his brother-producer Agustin). Early on, Miguel states that he would like to be a filmmaker.  Like Almodovar, Miguel is a precocious and eager boy.  One main reason he willingly goes to the dentist is to acquire free lesson in art. Like Almodovar, Miguel is more sophisticated, mature, and knowledgeable in issues of art and life than his older brother.  Miguel is Gloria’s favorite son, in the way that Toni is his father’s pride.  Named after his father, Toni models himself after his irresponsible dad, all the way down to developing skills for forgery.  That said, both siblings need a male role model, and on some level, engage in a (futile, as it turns out) rivalry to get his attention and emotional support.

 

The reconciliation between mother and son, and the reestablishment of their union, are now based on greater mutual respect. It underscores the deep understanding and bonding that often prevails between women and gay men in Almodovar’s work based on their shared recognition and suffering from the tyranny of patriarchy in all its socio- sexual manifestations.

 

The text gets richer and more universal in meaning by including another secondary character, a girl named Vaness who’s abused by her parents.  To retaliate against her mother, Vanessa develops special skills, telekinetic powers, in what is a clear reference to Brian De Palmas’s 1976 cult horror film, “Carrie.”

 

Technically, “What Have I Done? is crude and its production values raw, a combined result of the low-budget as well as Almodovar’s relative lack of experience.  But the shabby look is in tune with the tale’s squalid context and social class of its protagonists. “What Have I Done” is still Almodovar’s least stylized or camp film, unfolding within a particular historical milieu afflicted with urban problems of working class life: dense population, overcrowded apartments, unemployment (especially for women), rampant illiteracy, juvenile delinquency, crime, and drug trafficking.

 

As the downtrodden housewife, Carmen Maura, Almodovar’s muse and dominant actress of the whole decade of the 1980s, renders an outstanding performance, making Gloria’s trials, tribulations, and escapades, compelling as well as entertaining.   Almodovar is known as an actor’s director, who spends a lot of time with his performers, based on his philosophy that “Actors are the life of the cinema, everything is transmitted by them. Lighting, mise-en-scene, and all the rest are important, though nothing compared to the actors.”