Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Pedro Almodóvar made his breakthrough export success with Women on the Verge of a
Nervous Breakdown in 1988, but he hit his stride four years earlier with this subtly
twisted black comedy about a terminally dysfunctional family of Madrileños. Carmen
Maura is excellent in an impossible role, that of a caring mother who watches her family
fall apart in the most appalling ways. But it's all business as usual in a society that director
Almodóvar has decided no longer makes the slightest bit of sense.
Housewife, mother and cleaning woman Gloria (Carmen Maura) slaves during the days
and puts up with her cabdriver husband's insults at home. Nothing she does is acceptable, and her attempts
at some form of normalcy are thwarted by a family gone wild. Her oldest son deals drugs and her
youngest is perhaps 13 and openly sleeps with adult men. Grandmother is a meddler who wants the
family to return to the country. Father is a Nazi sympathizer who has already forged
Hitler's diaries for a famous German author, and is being sucked into a scheme by a married pair of
unsuccessful writers to do it again. Gloria's only friends are Cristal (Verónica Forqué)
the hooker next door, and a stern woman who beats her daughter - a psychic wonder who can move
objects with thought waves.
With something offensive for everyone, ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?!! is
Almodóvar at his best. His latest, Hable con ella shows once again that he's
a master at weaving seemingly outrageous and taboo subject matter into sensitive and
meaningful stories about love. This 1984 offering is a bit tougher and remote, but as an absurdist
view of family politics, is hard to beat.
The film lets its weirdnesses sneak up on us gradually. It all comes in a series of
small shocks. Gloria willingly lets herself be ravaged in the shower room of a Kendo dojo by
a silent stranger, and then goes on with her life as if nothing happened; I can see about 85% of Americans
tuning out right then and there. By the time it is casually revealed that one of her boys is sleeping
with men, and the loving Gloria knows about it (!) the film finally crosses the line into
absurdist black humor. It's not that anyone is wicked in this twisted Almodóvar world, the
world itself is out of control. Her husband sings German opera in the taxi, and professes his
admiration for Hitler to a fare who doesn't seem perturbed one bit. She isn't aware of her other
son's success as a pusher, although dotty grandma (played by Almodóvar regular
Chus Lampreave) seems to know all about it.
Gloria has friends but can't relate to any of them on a level playing field. Happy hooker
Cristal suggests a new curling iron to solve Gloria's problems. She also brings her in as a
paid 'observer' for an exhibitionist client, which makes for an unaccountably hilarious scene. Carmen
Maura's growing discomfort and disbelief at this and other developments turns What Have I Done
to Deserve This? into a weird and kinky version of a Laurel & Hardy movie.
Almodóvar never loses his step, which is a miracle considering developments
along the way. Viewers who don't perceive the satirical aim (which is admittedy fairly subtle) will
revolt when the family dentist, a pedophile, offers to 'adopt' the younger son. Even though it's
obvious what the pervert is up to, Gloria thinks making the son happy and having one less mouth to
feed makes perfect sense, and just leaves her boy behind! Complications with the scheming authors
bring things to a bizarre finish. Gloria's initial love-partner gets back into the story as well
- seeking help with impotence! By the time Gloria is watching a little girl wallpaper a room
with brainwaves, like Stephen King's Carrie, she's seen everything and can no longer be
awed by new outrages. We, however, watch the show in a state of permanent surprise.
A couple of Almodóvar's familiar twisted TV ads are seen along the way, with the difference
that this time the rest of the show is just as strange. Yet the proceedings are again sympathetic and not
cynical. With all the perversities in sight there is still no malice on the writer's part,
and certainly no moralistic endorsement of one character over another. Gloria is addicted to speed
and visits various uncooperative pharmacies (another familiar element) in failed attempts to
beg some more. Grandmother brings a big green lizard into the house where it gets preferred
status. Making do with no household money, Gloria tries to accomodate everyone in her
life and the result is quiet anarchy.
Like that of Luis Buñuel, Almodóvar's world is a borderline fantasyland that seeks
truth in distortions of human behavior. But the behaviors here are still very human - Gloria abides
everything. Although we expect some crazy breakdown scene, it's pre-empted by a bizarre accident.
Wellspring's DVD of What Have I Done to Deserve This? is a good enhanced transfer that finally
presents it attractively; I remember an older flat laser disc being particularly ugly. Now it can
take its place beside Almodóvar's later and more celebrated movies. The packaging says it's been
remixed in 5.1 as well, although I didn't notice much in the way of separation.
Wellspring's shorthand text dryly classifies the film as 'comedy/gay', which reads like an unfortunate
defensive move in PC-land. The shocking content here is almost all verbal, and there is no overt
gay content of any kind. If you can take All About My Mother or Talk to Her, you
poor defenseless sheltered Americans, What Have I Done to Deserve This? will seem tame. Like
all of his work, its human concern and artistry negate any hint of exploitation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
What Have I Done to Deserve This? rates:
Supplements: director filmography
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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