As I said when I linked to my review of Dark Habits, I have spent many years failing to appreciate the films of Pedro Almodovar because I couldn’t see beyond his tendency to play his own subject matter for laughs. If you have shared my failure to get your head round Almodovar then I think What Have I Done to Deserve This? is an excellent place to begin addressing your mistake. My review for FilmJuice can be found over here.
Much like Dark Habits, the film is an ensemble piece whose tangle of sub-plots and melodramatic themes are not without a certain resemblance to television soap operas. However, unlike soap operas where the melodrama is something of an end in itself, What Have I Done to Deserve This? uses that combination of misery and silliness to provide a critique of contemporary Spanish society. If I had to boil this film down to an elevator pitch, I’d describe it as what might have happened had Douglas Sirk been an Italian Neorealist.
Much like the earlier Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is a profoundly humane and moral film. Sure… its plot is littered with murder, prostitution, drug dealing and a mother who sells her pre-pubescent son to a paedophile dentist but Almodóvar never once allows social transgression to become exploitation. The film’s final shot only serves to underline the director’s moral seriousness as zooming out from Gloria on her balcony to a shot of three vast apartment complexes serves to universalise the lessons of the film. This is not about one woman’s fight to retain her dignity; this is about a battle fought every day on every street and in every building.
There are — arguably — a couple of better films included in the Almodovar Collection box set but none of them do a better job of showcasing the director’s ability to combine absolute moral seriousness with transgressive imagery and extreme light-heartedness.
This is my personal favourite of Almodovar’s movies, largely to it being one of the first I encountered. I worked my way through the filmography when a chance discovery of the box set in my university library aligned with an ongoing bout of insomnia. It’s funny that you cite the director’s irreverence as initially putting you off, because I think the exaggerated colour palettes and frenetic plots allowed me to see a way to approach film that wasn’t embarrassingly po-faced. As for playing subjects for laughs, I always found that kernel of humanity and respect you highlight in your Dark Habits review – likely because of the contrast I found in his work after becoming interested in art films through Tartan’s Asia Extreme imprint…
The Asia Extreme imprint is a fascinating touch-stone as it did get a generation of people interested in art house film by stressing their sensationalist elements. Better cultural critics than I would compare Tartan’s work to the way that anime was marketed in the 1990s and then relate both if them back to the similarly gendered campaign deployed by Sega to sell the megadrive…
I think I struggled with Almodovar because I was familiar witn the images (from watching other ‘extreme’ films) but the tone may have clashed with that macho note struck by Tartan’s approach to advertising.
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