Early in Pedro Almodóvar’s outrageously funny fourth feature, a grandmother (played by the ever wonderful Chus Lampreave) assists her eldest grandson with his literature homework. Tasked with placing a series of classic writers into one of two categories, she confidently labels Ibsen a romantic, Byron a realist, and so on, giving the wrong answer every time. This inversion of the two schools might be taken as a self-referential comment on the film at hand. The director has claimed that What Have I Done To Deserve This? primarily alludes to Italian neorealism. But this is a warped neorealism, concerned with straitened urban existence, yet finding space in its splattering of genre and plot lines for a shot from a lizard’s point of view, a plan for the forging of Hitler’s letters, and a little girl who harbors Carrie-like powers of telekinesis.
Arriving eight years after the death of Franco, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, shares with Italian neorealism a concern for a society as it transitions away from fascist dictatorship. While not filmed in the desolation of post world war two Italy, it nonetheless depicts a traumatic upheaval, with the past often viewed with nostalgia. I wonder if in this film we can see Spain’s relationship to its past, present and future coded in terms of gender.
The central drama occurs in a complex of grim oblong tower blocks overlooking the highway through Madrid. Kathleen M. Vernon writes that the film “depicts a world created by the urban non-planning of the Franco years, growing out of a policy that actively sought by passive neglect of urban social services to discourage immigration to the ‘corrupt’ cities” (33). Centering his drama within the domestic sphere, and three compartments within one of these blocks, Almodóvar carves a feminine space, albeit one defined by the presence or absence of males.
At the film’s center, Carmen Maura’s harried Gloria is sniffing the washing machine soap as if her sanity depends on it. Sharing an overcrowded apartment with her brutish taxi driving husband Antonio, her eccentric mother-in-law and two sons, she pivots between taking care of her own home and cleaning other people’s. Next door, vivacious prostitute Cristal entertains her clients at home, while upstairs Juani, a dressmaker bitter at the loss of her husband, makes the life of her young daughter miserable. From the stash of mineral water that the grandmother sells to her son for profit, to Gloria’s fruitless struggle to get housekeeping money from her husband, the lives of all these people revolve around the constant negotiations and transactions of the free market. When a lizard is adopted into the home, the grandmother choses its name from a list of her favorite items, finally settling on “Money”. As Alex Cox puts it, the oppression of consumerism has replaced the oppression of dictatorship.
Miguel, Gloria’s youngest son, is a gay twelve year old boy who plays with a zoetrope in bed surrounded by the cutout images of movie stars. As an obvious surrogate for the director, it is surely no coincidence that he is given the most transgressive storyline, and one that would have been unimaginable prior to the new freedoms that had opened up in Spanish society. The boy’s entry into the film comes with an accusation from his mother that he has been sleeping with his friend’s father again. Despite her admonitions, the mother connives to bring about the most outrageous transaction of the film, arranging for the child to move in with his pedophile dentist. Through this exchange, the mother avoids the dental fees and is instead able to buy a curling iron. For his part of the deal, Miguel negotiates art lessons and ensures that he will have access to a video recorder.
Miguel’s sexual proclivities contrast with the film’s representation of male hetrosexuality. It opens with a case of male impotence, as a spontaneous attempt by Gloria to have anonymous sex (with a partner subsequently revealed to be a cop) goes awry to her great frustration. It is just the first example of a motif running through the narrative, of heterosexual men unable to or uninterested in sexually satisfying women. Indeed, the only example of sexuality as enjoyed by a woman is recounted in a bizarre television commercial. An unnamed woman (Celia Roth) recounts her story of a night of passionate lovemaking which is followed in the morning by her husband tripping while bringing her a cup of coffee. We might consider the burning liquid that permanently disfigures her face as a punishment for pleasure, and this as a projection of the misogynistic Antonio who alone is watching the screen. Male impotence is not purely sexual. Witness the writer who cannot get published and the policemen who unwittingly destroy vital evidence.
The stresses of life in the capitalist economy require a salve that goes beyond Gloria’s dependence on her cleaning supplies. Addiction courses through the film, with characters variously dependent on prescription pills and fairy cakes, or struggling with alcoholism or kleptomania. “I don’t have any vices,” announces Gloria’s eldest son Toni as he clutches a cigarette. Significantly this teenager, whose own contribution to the economy is as a drug dealer, is the only character appearing to have a surfeit of cash.
When not simply numbing themselves in the present, characters desire to be somewhere else, invariably involving looking forwards or backwards. Cristal, her very body a subject of exchange, is the most forward looking and dreams of becoming an entertainer in Las Vegas. Elsewhere, Antonio reminisces on his previous life in Berlin, while his mother longs to return home to her rural village, and Toni dreams of accompanying her in order to tend the land. These characters yearn for a return to a world of the past. News of two suicides, that of Müller and a villager suggest the hopelessness of this mindset. Happiness comes from looking forward, not back. Past and future are also bound in the relationship between Juani and her daughter Vanessa. The cruel treatment of the child is related to the reminder that she presents of the absent father, the missing male representing a neutered history that the mother is still attached to, while the child (with her telekinetic powers) a fantastic future.
The film’s most convoluted episode concerns a plot to counterfeit Hitler’s letters. The plan, which takes the concern with trade into the multinational arena, ties into the theme of backwards looking. Vernon connects this aspect of the plot to the work of his fellow melodramatist Werner Rainer Fassbinder, linking the character of Ingrid Müller to the titular subjects of Veronica Voss and Lili Marleen. Indeed, the whole film seems connected to Fassbinder’s great project, albeit with a twist. If Fassbinder’s work confronts a society that has moved on without confronting past sins, Almodóvar reveals a society struggling to move forward, and then shows how it might.
The outcome of the forgery plan is the dissolution of Gloria’s family, with the killing of Antonio and his mother’s return to the countryside with Toni. At the same time, a change can be noted in a key patriarchal figure. Through his career, we might link the cop, with whom Gloria failed to have intercourse, to the repression of the Franco regime. Now, with the help of a woman, Cristal, he is finally cured of his impotence. The first act of this reborn male is to refuse to detain another woman (Gloria) despite a confession to murder.
In a finale torn from classic melodrama, Gloria returns to her apartment lost and alone, accompanied by the grand sweep of the music on the soundtrack. Proceeding directly to the balcony, she leans over the railing as if preparing to jump. A small figure enters the frame far below her and waves upwards. Miguel has returned to a building that, in the world of this film at least, is now entirely female. Reunited with his mother, his ironic assertion that his mother needs a man around draws attention to how different this child is to the sexually flailing, brutish and boastful representatives of the male gender seen previously. A poster depicting a bucolic lakeside scene is fastened to the wall behind Gloria and Miguel as they face each other in this final shot of the film. The camera zooms in slowly until the poster fills the background, placing the couple within this beautiful scene. There is no need to leave Madrid, the country is being transformed from within. The future is optimistic, and it is female.