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.
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,