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Posts Tagged ‘Veronica Forque’

I was genuinely a bit concerned that I’d peaked too soon by watching The Skin I Live In as only the second film in the current Almodovarathon – this was a genuine case of ‘how do you follow that?’ Well, I decided to grasp the nettle, mix the metaphor, and hurl myself back into the depths of time to 1984, when Almodovar was little-known as a director even in Spain. The film in question is What Have I Done to Deserve This?! – there is some inconsistency over whether to translate the title with a final ? or a !, so I have decided to go with both – the Spanish title of which is the slightly-unwieldy ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?

The movie is set in then-contemporary Madrid and opens with a visit to the local kendo club, where we find the cleaner, Gloria (Carmen Maura) watching the members waving their swords about with fascination. Once they’ve all gone, Gloria even has a go herself, really getting into those overhead swings. But it turns out they have not all gone, and she stumbles across one of the members, Polo (Luis Hostalot), naked in the shower. A robust and intimate (though consensual) encounter ensues, which Gloria does not find entirely satisfying. (For a long time this seems like a weird prologue which contributes nothing to the rest of the film, but it is setting up a lot of threads which eventually get picked up in the third act.)

Gloria heads home and we slowly learn more about her and the people close to her: she lives in a pokey little flat close to the motorway, with her unpleasant husband Antonio (Angel de Andres Lopez), his mother (Chus Lampreave), and her two children, fourteen-year-old Toni (Juan Martinez), who is dealing heroin at school to fund his dream of becoming a farmer, and twelve-year-old Miguel (Miguel Angel Herranz), whose main distinguishing feature seems to be that he is precociously and promiscuously gay. Gloria’s closest friend amongst her neighbours is Cristal (Veronica Forque), a prostitute whose ambition is to go to Las Vegas, while also living in the building is Juani (Kiti Manver), a bad-tempered dressmaker whose life is often made a misery by her young daughter, who has psychic powers.

A startling array of plotlines and situations develop out of this premise, involving yet more characters: one of Cristal’s clients, a writer (Gonzalo Suarez), hires Gloria as his cleaning lady, but then tries to involve Antonio (whose main talent is being able to falsify handwriting) in a bizarre scheme to fake Hitler’s diaries (the genuine Hitler diary hoax had taken place the previous year), although this involves sweet-talking a German opera singer. Granny and Toni find and adopt a lizard, which they christen Dinero (the lizard’s real name is Carlito). Gloria basically gives Miguel away to his dentist, who is strongly implied to be an insane paedophile, as this should give him a better start in life and cut down on the family bills. Polo pays Cristal to pretend to be his girlfriend during his visits to a sex therapist, who happens to be her client the writer’s brother. It goes on and on like this, increasingly convoluted and ridiculous.

Almodovar (who even makes a preposterous cameo appearance himself, as an opera singer) says it is basically a homage to Italian neorealism, and there are vague signs of the film wanting to address serious social issues: Gloria is clearly suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety and has become addicted to tranquilisers, a situation which seems unlikely to change given the treatment she receives from her family. On the other hand, the notion at the heart of a well-known Roald Dahl story is incorporated into the story virtually unaltered, so you could consider the film a homage to him as well – or possibly the whole thing is just a tribute to throwing vast amounts of mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.

Perhaps that’s just being unfair, though, for while much of What Have I Done to Deserve This?! is wildly, extravagantly silly, the script is actually a lot more coherent than it looks: in the end, everything comes together in a remarkably focussed way,  and the quality of the film is consistently high – you might expect this to be very uneven, but it’s a lot more consistently funny than that. There are a few places where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to be provocative and outrageous, the paedophile dentist being the most obvious example, but thankfully he’s a minor character. Most of the time the film is just an absurd black comedy.

However, it’s an absurd black comedy with unexpected depths, which are the strongest indication of the kind of direction Almodovar was going to take in future films. No matter how ridiculously unbelievable any of the things in this film become, el maestro somehow manages to keep it all emotionally grounded and involving – there is a warmth and compassion here, even when you least expect it. Almodovar’s chief collaborator in this is Carmen Maura, who is at the heart of the film: it helps that Maura’s character is relatively normal compared to most of those around her, but she not only manages to retain your interest, she even manages to generate real pathos as the story proceeds and Gloria finds herself increasingly isolated and desperate.

It’s this compassion and humanity which makes the film recognisably an Almodovar movie. It is clearly still the work of someone figuring out his craft, and playing with the elements of storytelling which are most interesting to him: outrageous plot developments, handled deadpan; a deep interest in the female characters and their outlook on life; a sense of camp. Still not quite there is the willingness to explore the perspective of the gay characters in quite the same way, while also still absent is the interest in incorporating suspense-story and thriller elements into a character-focused narrative. But for all that Almodovar was still essentially learning his art and working for someone else when he made this film, it has his stamp upon it, and it’s a very engaging and amusing piece of entertainment.

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