What Have I Done To Deserve This?

****

Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

What Have I Done To Deserve This?
"Although darkly funny the film also has strong undercurrents of genuine emotion - Gloria's despair is real rather than comic."

Pedro Almodóvar's fourth film mixes social realism and melodrama with Spanish costumbrismo (a series of stereotypes relating to the rural and working classes) in his own inimitable style - resulting in amphetamine-addicted housewives, telekinesis, the Hitler diaries and death by hambone. The mordantly funny tale sees Gloria (Carmen Maura) working multiple cleaning jobs to make ends meet and being driven to distraction by the demands placed on her by her husband Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López), sons Toni and Miguel (Juan Martínez and Miguel Ángel Herranz), and her mother-in-law (a scene-stealing Chus Lampreave).

Gloria has become addicted to amphetamines and as her supply runs out (they've been categorised as 'prescription only'), she becomes increasingly frazzled and resorts to sniffing household cleaning agents in order to get through the day. The macho Antonio - a taxi driver and sometime forger - doesn't like his wife working because it means that she isn't around to wait on him hand and foot, but as he won't give her the money to cover the bills, she has no option. Gloria's prostitute neighbour Cristal (Verónica Forqué) points her in the direction of new cleaning jobs and occasionally puts money Gloria's way by asking her to sit in on sessions with exhibitionist clients. The only person in the family with any money is 14-year-old Toni - who is dealing drugs and forging cheques on the side - and Gloria will end up "selling" Miguel to the paedophile dentist in order to cover the bill for his braces.

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Meanwhile Antonio tells one of his passengers - failed novelist Lucas (Gonzalo Suárez) - about forging letters from Hitler for a German author he used to work for. Lucas's rejected novel is in the form of a dictator's memoirs and he thinks that if he can persuade Antonio to forge it into Hitler's handwriting, their fortunes will be made. Lucas worms his way into the family by taking Gloria on as a cleaner, but Antonio will take the moral high ground unless the novelist can find a way to persuade Antonio's old flame Frau Müller (Katia Loritz) to intervene...

All of this is just a comedic backdrop to Almodóvar's real focus - the breakdown of a working woman in an unforgiving urban environment. The city setting is emphasised through exterior shots of the identikit grey tenement blocks and the surrounding motorway - which underlines the sense that Gloria is stranded - and Lampreave's granny repeatedly lamenting that she is not back in her village rather than cold Madrid.

Despite the emphasis on rural migration - most of the characters are from somewhere other than the capital, which mirrors Almodóvar's own life journey - a community of sorts is nonetheless suggested in the way that the various women in the tenement (Gloria, Cristal, and the bad-tempered Juani (Kiti Mánver)) help each other out. But the last shot of the film - which pulls back, losing its focus on Gloria's balcony among the multitude of identical buildings - suggests that Gloria's story could be taking place many times over, and that the city is filled with women on the verge (of a nervous breakdown).

Although darkly funny the film also has strong undercurrents of genuine emotion - Gloria's despair is real rather than comic. This was probably the first of Maura's collaborations with Almodóvar to fully suggest what she was capable of as a performer and a sign of things to come.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2014
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An amphetamine-addicted housewife reaches breaking point with her ungrateful family.

Festivals:

Leeds 2014

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