WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS?
(Que He Hecho Yo Para Merecer Esto?) (Spain, 1984) *
Gloria is a woman in her thirties. She would be attractive were she not so harried. She lives in a cramped apartment within a monstrous low-cost housing development. Co-existing around her is a gallery of individuals, each of whom is outrageous in a different way, each of whom is worked into the plots and subplots of the movie.
There's Antonio, the chauvinist pig taxi-driver husband who is hung up on German songs by Zarah Leander (the darling of the Nazi era) ; who has a talent for imitating handwriting; who once forged some letters of Hitler to a mistress, when he (Antonio) was a chauffeur in Germany and sleeping with his lady employer.
There's the older son who deals drugs and the younger son who goes to bed with his classmate's father. There's Antonio's stingy old mother (played with filmic effrontery by a young woman in opaque glasses) who's hung up on sweets and mineral water ("with lots of bubbles") and sells part of her stock to her son, as needed.
Across the hall is sexy Cristal, Gloria's only friend and a whore. Another neighbor is a seamstress who hates her former husband and takes it out on her cherubic little girl. The child has telekinetic powers.
If movies had a face, this one would have a deadpan expression. In a series of off-the-wall crises, the film proceeds imperturbably, treating the most outlandish or immoral events in casual fashion. Ill-husbanded Gloria, long on household slavery and short on household money, also works as a cleaning woman. She pops uppers to steady her nerves. As the picture opens, she has a sexual encounter of the LAST TANGO IN PARIS school. Later, one of her husband's fares who also happens to be one of Cristal's clients, hires her for himself and his brother. The man is a failed writer whose wife is another failed writer as well as a kleptomaniac. He hatches a plot involving Antonio and another Nazi forgery. His brother, a psychiatrist who ought to be seeing a psychiatrist, counsels an impotent police inspector who is in and out of everyone's life.
Gloria lets a pederastic dentist adopt her junior son so that the youngster may have a better life. Grandma adopts a lizard and baptizes him "Money," the most important thing in life.
That's only part of the criss-crossings where each individual gets by hook, crook , or arbitrariness, involved with several others, but is hardly involved in any concern for others. It takes a while for us to sort things out in those concentric circles, to realize that the shifting center of the movie is Gloria, to see that the main point is a feminist one about the still-unliberated woman in Spain. Women may have come a long way since Franco died, but they still have a much longer way to go.
Almodovar, performer, cartoonist, writer and filmmaker, conducts his movie like a series of mad yet cool improvisations. WHAT HAVE I DONE.... may remind you in some ways of underground features, of the work of American director Paul Bartel, of gonzo journalism, of the dark humor of Bunuel and other Spaniards, but it is essentially an original work.
The French New Wave--by now old but staging a welcome comeback via contemporary imitators in Britain and elsewhere--may also come to mind, with for example, Almodovar's asides on top of asides. Some of those are obviously relevant. Others are indirectly relevant, like the very funny parodies of neo-Hispanic TV commercials which comment on the ludicrousness of the media and the way they stultify the public. Others yet (like a man who makes car noises) look like inventions that were too good to pass up--so why not throw them in?
As you watch this film, you may go through different stages, including one where you think that there's overkill, but keep going and the purposes of Almodovar's exaggerations fall into place. Paradoxically, as matters become increasingly surreal, social criticism becomes increasingly real. I will not reveal all the ins and outs of the plot, but when a hambone and police investigators get involved, not only does this in with the opening sequence in a "kendo" (martial arts) academy, but also with a once-famous black humor story by Roald Dahl, first printed in the New Yorker magazine many years ago.*
In keeping with its subject(s), the film has provocative tastelessness at times, and always a voluntarily garish look, from the amateurish opening credits in strong, primary colors, to its defiant use of unsophisticated lighting set-ups. The closing shots of the building complex may or may not be a reference to Godard's denunciation of soulless low-cost housing and living in his film ONE OR TWO THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER. But anyone who knows European public housing will see the validity of those simple, emblematic images.
In speech and deed, there's much bawdiness, with parodistic sex scenes and Rabelaisian glee at bodily functions and references to them. The subtitles try much too hard to render the Spanish slang into English slang, with unintentionally funny results and misspellings: you get sonny for Sony, smak for smack, nitwuit, or cryptic things like " my j'ug."
WHAT I HAVE DONE is not a "finished" product by ordinary standards. I say this as a compliment to its convention-defying nature , to its maverick power, the method in its madness, and the consistently ironical view of a world which is askew.
It is certainly one of the most interesting films shown in the US in 1988.
------------------------------------------------------- Review written in 1988.
* 1996 addenda:
(1) Many sources in US film guides give it erroneously a 1985 release date.
(2) The Roald Dahl story and/or its main trick found their way into TV programs of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents type, as well as in features.
(3) See also reviews of Almodovar's LAW OF DESIRE and HIGH HEELS.