What Have I Done to Deserve This
For the past 30 years, Pedro Almodóvar has created films at a consistent pace, approximately one every two years or so. The fourth film in this impressive oeuvre, What Have I Done to Deserve This, marked a critical turning point in his development as a filmmaker and emerging auteur. This film was the first to enjoy international distribution, his second out of six collaborations with the actress Carmen Maura, and concretized many of the recurring thematic elements of his films: female solidarity and independence, the importance of female relationships, the recurring characters of the prostitute and the troubled housewife, the deterioration of the family, the dangers of patriarchy, and the evils of consumerism.
What Have I Done to Deserve This centers upon a glorious performance by Carmen Maura as Gloria, a bored, unfulfilled housewife that lives in a small apartment in Madrid with her abusive husband, two sons and meddling, miserly mother-in-law. Gloria’s taxi driver husband withholds money from her, money that she desperately needs to maintain the household while he not so secretly pines for a German opera singer. Her mother-in-law constantly complains, longing to live in the countryside. Her oldest son Toni sells drugs and her youngest son Miguel has sex with older men. Working as a maid for wealthier families, Gloria’s only refuge from her life is her next door neighbor and best friend Crystal, a prostitute. Though the film contains many subplots and additional characters (including an impotent policeman, a telepathic young girl, and the dentist Gloria sells her youngest son to), the meat of the narrative occurs when Gloria accidently kills her husband with a ham leg as he is attacking her, the only witness being the family iguana named Dinero. Gloria successfully evades the police and is never prosecuted for the murder of her husband.
What Have I Done to Deserve This is perhaps the most important film of Almodóvar’s early career outside of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In this film, he was able to lay the foundation for the dichotomous relationships that define his work: farce vs. melodrama, tragedy vs. comedy, female oppression vs. female liberation, authority of the state vs. authority of the individual, reality vs. surrealism. After the completion of this film, Almodóvar intensified his exploration of these relationships to worldwide success and acclaim. What Have I Done to Deserve This, if nothing more, is the beginning of a template of filmography that borders along genius.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
“A new comedy about someone you know” tagline for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown announces its status immediately: the opening credits is a series of commercial pop art, equally vibrant and gaudy. Pop art is an embrace of the commercial and the manufactured, some of the qualities that many artists deride. Almodóvar is after all a pop artist; he seems to have no pretensions that he’s making high art, especially with Women the Verge, the film that catapulted him to international fame.
Because of the screwball nature of the plot, any description of it borders on irrelevant. Ivan (Fernando Guillén) leaves his girlfriend Pepa (Carmen Maura), who goes into a state of depression that she combats with sleeping pills. After she receives some important news from her doctor, she sets out to tell Ivan. Although she doesn’t find him, she does find out something new: Ivan had a son, Carlos (a dorky young Antonio Banderas), who is married to Marissa (the fascinating, Picasso-esque face of Rossy de Palma). From there on the group mingles with phone repairmen, the mentally ill, and Shiite terrorists. If you want to label the film, melodramedy seems to be the only appropriate term. Coincidences, estranged sons, political intrigue, mistaken identities, spiked gazpacho, it’s a loving embrace of the most commercial film genres perfected melded into one. Yet each element serves to enhance the others, there’s no clashing of the various tones of each style.
Women on the Verge isn’t meant as a self-serious drama, but rather an off-the-wall comedy, where the absurdity of one situation leads to the even more absurd next. The comedy doesn’t arise from humorous situations, but rather a juxtaposition of a series of rather serious ones. It’s the type of zany narrative that is frequently employed by many filmmakers today, from the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, to François Ozon’s 8 Women, to David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express. But the form has commercially viable filmic roots back in the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, including Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth, and His Girl Friday.
It’s Almodóvar’s embrace of his work as pop art which makes it such an endearing film. The color palette resembles Warhol’s silkscreened celebrity portraits, but more to the point would be the way in which Almodóvar pays homage to well-respected commercial filmmakers. Pepa works dubbing films, and we see her doing voiceover work for Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. A poster for the Charles Vidor musical Cover Girl (starring Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth) hangs on a wall. And as Pepa stares at Ivan’s apartment complex, Almodóvar visually quotes Rear Window, showing us a Spanish Miss Torso. It’s the ability to straddle commercial guidelines and artistic vision (something so few can do, but Hitchcock, Ray, and Vidor are notable exceptions) that makes Almodóvar one of the most well-respected commercial filmmakers.