Saturday, August 08, 2009

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

A fairly early Pedro Almodovar feature, made between 'Dark Habits' and 'Matador' (up soon on the personal faves list), 'What Have I Done to Deserve This?' showcases the director's preoccupation with madcap plotlines, eccentric characters and kitschy, cluttered mise-en-scene - a preoccupation that would reach its zenith with his international breakout hit 'Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown' a few years later.

'What Have I Done to Deserve This?' (hereinafter referred to as 'WHIDtDT?') is also characterised by a strand of melancholy - a trait it shares with 'Dark Habits'. Both are specific in their setting (a convent in 'Dark Habits', a housing estate in 'WHIDtDT?') and seldom stray outside of them (although 'WHIDtDT?' does take a quick detour to Berlin); and both are peopled with characters whose lives are compromised or burdened.

In 'WHIDtDT?', Gloria (Carmen Maura)'s burden is her family.

There's her husband, Antonio (Angel de Andres Lopez): a taxi driver who barely makes ends meet, requiring Gloria to take on a succession of grubby cleaning jobs, and yet expects good food, wine and dessert on the table when he comes home. An accomplished forger who nonetheless refuses to profit from his "talents", he still carries a torch for Ingrid (Katia Loritz), a German torch singer who he used to chauffeur.

There's her two sons: the eldest is a small-time dope dealer, the youngest has a penchant for older men. (In the film's most questionable scene, Gloria foots a dental bill by "selling" him to the dentist - a slavering paedophile.)

There's her mother-in-law, Abuela (Chus Lampreave), who's given over to impulsive acts such as bringing a lizard home. Some of the characters love the lizard. Some hate it. It comes and goes and is witness to a killing. It is eventually stamped on and thrown out into the rain. The lizard is called Money. Draw your own conclusions.

Gloria's neighbours include Cristal (Veronica Forque), the very definition of a happy hooker, and the highly-strung Juani (Kiti Manver) whose daughter Vanessa (Sonia Anabela Holimann) is telekinetic. One of Cristal's clients is Lucas (Gonzola Suarez), a down-on-his-luck writer who cooks up a plot to forge Hitler's diaries after he gets a ride in Antonio's cab and Antonio lets slip about his "talent". Lucas's brother is a psychiatrist who's treating an impotent cop who hires Cristal to pose as his girlfriend and later agrees to let her off the small matter of possession of narcotics in return for a more direct programme of sexual therapy.

Lucas, desperate to get the forged diary project off the ground, inveigles Ingrid's help in persuading Antonio. But things don't go according to plan. For anyone ...

Boasting a melange of intertwining subplots and character interrelationships that make 'Short Cuts' seem like an exercise in linearity and minimalism, 'WHIDtDT?' has all the ingredients for slice of screwball silliness infused with bad taste and served with an extra helping of high camp and hold the disbelief. Wringing laughs from exhibitionism, drug abuse and reptile evisceration is one thing, but Almodovar has the chutzpah to throw in a scene where Vanessa uses her telekinetic abilities to redecorate Gloria's kitchen, and any sense that the glum housing estate and backdrop of marital disharmony betoken a Ken Loach style approach to social realism disappear.

In fact, 'WHIDtDT?' comes across as such a grab-bag of ideas, homages and wacky set-pieces that it's hard to classify. Comedy? Kinda, but laced with the aforementioned melancholy. Drama? In places, but undercut by some bizarre comedic touches. A satire? Yeah, but of what exactly? 'WHIDtDT?' seems to take a swipe at everything. Is it a morality tale about how Gloria is liberated of her burden? Yes and no; sort of; kinda. Neo-realism? Most of the reviews I've read online seem to think so but, seriously, put 'WHIDtDT?' on a double bill with 'Germany, Year Zero' or 'The Bicycle Thieves' and see how long the argument holds up.

There's a case to be made, at a stretch, for 'WHIDtDT?' as a pastel-coloured work of surrealism: a Madrid-set David Lynch prototype except without the backwards-talking dwarves and the blandly sanguine types in rabbit costumes.

Aw hell, it's easier just to say it's an Almodovar film. One of the earlier, crazier ones.

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