No one would deny that Pedro Almodovar is a singular voice in world cinema. The Spanish auteur has his own peculiar fetishes, brought to life with a bizarre sense of humor and a particular sensitivity to people on the fringe. His movies tend to be about women in the middle of some peril, searching for some kind of relief, often from the men in their lives, often finding that relief in sisterhood. He also likes people who walk on the wrong side of the tracks, be they drug addicts, performers, transgender personalities, or what have you. Like a Spanish John Waters, Pedro sees the wrong side of the tracks as the right side.
That said, not every artist can paint a masterpiece every time out, and the two films in the Essentials Director Series - Pedro Almodovar are far from Pedro's best. These two movies, What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Dark Habits, were his first efforts with real studio backing behind him, and they immediately predate the films in last year's amazing, comprehensive Viva Pedro box. They aren't terrible movies, there are plenty of directors out there who would kill to have these be the best entries in their oeuvre, much less the mediocre ones. It's just instead of being great, they bear the mark of a younger director still struggling to find his voice.
First in the box is Dark Habits, which despite the 1999 date printed on the outer container was actually made in 1983. It also only runs 100 minutes, not the 115 promised by the packaging. Such is the state of this haphazard boxed set series that Wellspring is putting together, proofreaders don't appear to be on staff. In fact, it should be noted that these are not new releases of either of these films, but just the old DVDs put into a cardboard box with a flimsy Velcro flap. (Other entries in the series include sets of Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog.) If you already own these movies, you can stop reading here, there is nothing more to see. If you don't already own them, and you've already purchased Viva Pedro and want to fill out your Almodovar collection, this two-pack is the best deal for these titles, saving you about $10 from buying the movies separately.
Dark Habits is the story of Yolanda (Cristina S. Pascual), a nightclub singer whose junkie boyfriend overdoses on poisoned heroin. Rather than deal with the police, Yolanda flees to a convent run by the Order of Redeemers, a strange sect of nuns who believe in self-mortification. Their Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) is a fan of Yolanda's and had given the singer her card. She is also a lesbian dope fiend, which actually doesn't make her the weirdest nun in the order. All of the Redeemers have strange proclivities, and strange names to go with them. For instance, Sister Rat of the Gutters (Chus Lampreave) uses a pen name to write trashy novels about the wayward souls who visit the convent, Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) is raising a tiger in the garden, and Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) drops acid to talk to Jesus. For someone on the run, Yolanda has kind of gone from weird frying pan to screwed-up fire.
Dark Habits is clearly meant to be irreverent, a twisted comedy about how salvation is wherever you may find it, regardless of how taboo it may be. Unfortunately, it feels forced, adopting an easy iconoclastic tone that is never really convincing. Far better is the manic, anything-goes tableau Pedro created a year later in 1984's What Have I Done to Deserve This? (101 minutes). In this dysfunctional family comedy, the director gives us an apartment building in Madrid that not only houses his hapless heroine (Maura, once again), but her neighbor (Veronica Forque) is a prostitute and the little girl who lives upstairs has telekinetic powers. And that doesn't even begin to touch on Gloria's own family.
Gloria is tired out from working multiple cleaning jobs to support her family. Her husband, Antonio (Angel de Andres Lopez), drives a cab, but he never seems to bring home any bacon or notice what his wife is doing for him. One of her sons (Juan Martinez) is secretly a drug dealer, while her other (Miguel Angel Herranz) is a pubescent independent with a proclivity for older men. Her mother-in-law (Lampreave) lives with them, but she hordes her own mineral water and cupcakes and stores large sticks in her closet. Meanwhile, a desperate writer (Gonzalo Suarez) is trying to get Antonio to help him forge Hitler's memoirs, and the writer's alcoholic brother is trying to aid an impotent cop (Luis Hostalot) with whom Gloria had a dalliance get over his little problem.
Gloria will cross paths with the cop again when a scuffle with Antonio leads to his accidental death. The killing of an abusive husband is a common element in Pedro's work, all the way up to 2006's Volver. In the case of What Have I Done to Deserve This?, the removal of Antonio opens the door for change in his family. Everyone makes a move in some way, and Gloria, who is addicted to pep pills of various kinds, can let some of the load drop from her shoulders. Maura is extremely sympathetic as the haggard wife and mother who hasn't realized how much love she has let drain from her life. She and Pedro would team up many more times as the years progressed.
While there are plenty of contrivances in What Have I Done to Deserve This?, they seem to come to the director more naturally here than in Dark Habits. While the earlier film feels like he is slouching toward the odd on purpose, What Have I Done to Deserve This? has a looser tone, like the outlandish elements aren't being thrown in for any other reason than the director thought they'd be fun. Though not up to the standards Pedro Almodovar would soon set for himself, it certainly is getting him closer to his signature style, and of the two movies here, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is likely to be the one you'll get some repeat entertainment out of.
What Have I Done to Deserve This? also has a weird thing where when characters speak in a language other than Spanish, the Spanish subtitles burned into the original print appear on screen, and the DVD's English subtitles get bumped to the top.