‘Her only companions are her household appliances. They’re the sole witnesses to her pain, her solitude and her anxieties. They’re also the only witnesses of the murder she commits.’ Expand on this comment from Almodóvar’s interview with Strauss explaining the full significance of this statement to the characterisation of Gloria in ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (1984).
In ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!, the household appliances are, as Almodóvar states, Gloria’s companions. They are also, quite simply, the bane of her existence. They stand for the incessant amount of housework within which she is constantly immersed, the deterioration in the relationships she shares with her husband and children, and the modern lifestyle that has failed to deliver its lucrative promises. This duality that the household appliances present for Gloria will be explored in the ensuing essay.
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The first time the viewer sees Gloria in connection with her household appliances is when she fills her washing machine with clothes. The next direct liaison between housewife and appliance is seen when she puts a pan into the oven. In both instances the camera is positioned so as to show the appliances, in effect, taking the point of view and looking back at her. Almodóvar explains this choice of camera angle: “I framed the shots from within these domestic appliances because I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the objects that were a part of her daily life.” Indeed, the subjective shots from inside the household appliances suggest Gloria is being observed by the objects.
Moreover, the camera frames Gloria’s face in a close-up for several seconds at a time – a view which is rarely seen throughout the entire film – and it is in these instances that the viewer can properly see Gloria’s wrinkles, her frowning lips, her eye bags. All this infers that it is only the appliances that are able to comprehend “her pain, her solitude, and her anxieties”, whereas her husband, or anyone else for that matter, could not care less. Her only companions are indeed her household appliances.
On the other hand, the viewer could deduce the opposite at the same time by analysing this same mise-en-scène. These sequences feature an unconventional reverse-angle shot amidst a conventional kitchen setting: only the reverse shot is shown; we do not see Gloria’s point of view that one would normally expect of the washing machine as she loads it with clothes. While this non-naturalistic use of the reverse-angle shot is startling as it creates a distancing effect for the viewer, it is not entirely unfamiliar, since TV commercials for clothes washers and fried-chicken recipes long ago appropriated this particular editing figure (D’Lugo, Pedro Almodovar, p. 40). Almodóvar explains in his interview with Philippe Rouyer and Claudine Vié, “I wanted to show the flip side of all these ads that always tout the happiness brought by domestic appliances but never the misery that envelops the housekeeper, the lack of pleasure that these appliances bring.” (Willoquet-Maricondi, Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews, p. 75) Almodóvar indeed succeeds in demonstrating this concept since there is no sense of happiness in Gloria’s look as she puts in the laundry; the quotidian, routine nature of loading the washing machine can be clearly perceived here in her indifferent expression. In the ads of yesteryear however, the housewife using the washing machine would have a bright toothy smile plastered onto her face, as if to suggest that she could not be happier doing anything else since the machine has made her life so easy.
In fact, this spoof of old commercials seen in these sequences sets the genre of the entire film itself. Despite its eclecticism and resultant hybrid nature, ¿Qué he hechoâ€¦!! suggests in general a satire of a sitcom about a beleaguered housewife. Its frenzied pace makes the film run hastily, and the close-quarters framing, where the viewer is shown the constant movement of actors in and out of the frame, recreates the look of the television screen. As Marcia Pally writes, ¿Qué he hechoâ€¦!! plays directly off the traditions of daytime TV without quoting any particular sitcom or soap (Willoquet-Maricondi, Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews, p. 86).
These appliances definitely do not in any way make her life any easier: the chicken that she had put into the oven for dinner becomes burnt, causing her husband to curse at her. It is then she who eats the burned parts – this effectively being an example of how it is the housewife who sacrifices herself for her family. In this respect, it can be deduced that the household appliances do more harm than good to her.
In this latter scene, the oven undoubtedly manifests itself as a contributing source of tension and conflict between the married couple. Moreover, after the shot from within the washing machine, she impatiently shoos away her son Toni from the kitchen when he comes to ask her help with his homework. In the next shot, the viewer sees Toni walk into the living room and it his grandmother who asks him how his homework is coming along, and offers to lend him a hand. True, she gives him all the wrong the answers, but that is beside the point: Toni and his grandmother spend a lot of time together, discussing their future plans when they go back to their pueblo, walking in the streets and the park, going to the cinema, etc. To this end, in terms of film editing, the contrast between the relationships between Toni and Gloria, and Toni and his abuela, are especially emphasised due to the juxtaposition of these two scenes.
Gloria has been far too busy doing her housework to notice her sons grow up over the years. This is demonstrated near the end of the film when Toni hands her some of his savings. She tells him, “Hijoâ€¦ qué poco te conozco”; she obviously has been unaware of what he does and where he goes everyday. When the bus pulls away, we are shown a mid-shot of Gloria for more than 45 seconds as she walks back home. The length and type of shot allows us to fully comprehend Gloria’s facial expressions which is markedly chock full of emotion: tearful and distressed, it appears that it has just dawned upon her what she has missed all these years being a housewife, and now it appears to be too late as both sons have left. It could be thus said that her only companions are her household appliances by virtue of the very fact that her household appliances are her companions! The fact that she is addicted to amphetamines such as washing detergent could not convey any clearer this point that she has an unhealthy relationship with her household appliances; just like any drug addiction, it spells the deterioration of her relationship with her family.
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To Almodóvar, the sequences which are reminiscent of commercials also have another implication: “Advertisingâ€¦ is the only medium which makes these objects alive and even endows them with personalities. There are a huge number of commercials in which the main character is a yoghurt carton, directed as if it were a real character, lit by the cameraman as if it were a genuine star. I’m very interested by this aspect of advertising. The value it gives to objects and the way it turns them into characters.” Indeed, the fact that the viewer sees Gloria, the subject of the shot, from the point of view of the washing machine and the oven makes it appear as if the household appliances are autonomous beings who have some sort of command and higher authority over Gloria, bidding her to live her life around opening this door, filling that compartment with detergent, pushing this button, turning that knob, and so on. These shots are disturbing and slightly alarming when seen in this light, but this is certainly the underlying reason why Gloria is so downtrodden by her career as a housewife, slowly crumbling under the weight of the travails that everyday life dictates.
On a deeper level still, these household appliances, independent of their commercial-like representation in the film, are a constant reminder of this modern standard of living in which Gloria and her family inhabit. This mise-en-scène reflects the migration motif of the narrative. The plot and mise-en-scène of ¿Qué he hechoâ€¦!! is reminiscent of a specifically Spanish tradition of black comedies from the fifties and early sixties such as José Antonio Nieves Conde’s Surcos. Indeed, it is a film which Almodóvar himself acknowledges as one of the cinematic inspirations for ¿Qué he hechoâ€¦!!. Grounded in the socioeconomic conditions of the period, these films focused on the plight of urban dwellers. They struggled to survive in a city that was unable to provide jobs and housing to a population swollen by recent arrivées from the economically even more desperate provinces in search of the consumerist culture that had been the promise of Franco’s economic policies (D’Lugo, Pedro Almódovar, p. 41). Contrary to Almodóvar’s often-cited declarations about making films as if Franco never existed, ¿Qué he hechoâ€¦!! depicts a world created by the urban non-planning of the Franco years, growing out of a policy that actively sought by passive neglect of urban social services to discourage immigration to the “corrupt” cities (Carr and Fusi, “The Rural Exodus” in Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy, pp. 66-70). Like the characters from those earlier films, both Gloria and her husband have come from the pueblo, the pueblo to which her mother-in-law and older son Toni will return at the end of the film. The post-Franco city has failed them, as it fails Gloria, despite their apparently greater material well-being in a world of timesaving home appliances, the “consumer paradise” of contemporary Spain. As Almodóvar succinctly puts it in his summary of the film, “[Gloria] would like to become a member of the consumer society, but only manages to consume herself, day by day.”
Nevertheless, as Almodóvar states in the quote in the question above, the only witnesses to her murder are not beings but her refrigerator and gas stove. The only other “witness”, the lizard, is killed. Obviously due to their inanimate nature, they cannot reveal the truth to the policemen, but because they do not, thus seems to suggest that they sympathise and even tacitly approve of the murder of her brutish husband. In this regard, the household appliances are indeed her companions, and perhaps passive accomplices in the crime.
The characterisation of Gloria is also conveyed through the use of still camera shots. Almodóvar acknowledges that although this technique was determined rather by the restricted nature of the sets, “the tripod was perfect for the film; it added a great deal of tension. Generally, tracking shots tend to soften the action while the tripod hardens it. I wanted to stay inside the house because it was Gloria’s only universe.” Hence it is the house that is the setting for much of the film – as if the house, and everything within it, were a protagonist itself. This inevitably connects the household with Gloria, as if they were on equal footing, and thus reinforcing Almodóvar’s statement that “her only companions are her household appliances”. Moreover, this tension that the use of the tripod brings for the viewer serves to intensify the sense of anxiety and stress that Gloria the housewife undergoes perpetually as she exists within her “universe”.
In the attempted suicide scene, on the other hand, Almodóvar uses almost a long tracking shot. He starts with a shot of Gloria and then moves to an elaborate tracking shot, with the camera surveying her entire field of vision before returning to her. “I really wanted to use an original shot. The effect if pretty deep, it renders what is most intimate in a human being. I wanted to show that the moment she becomes free, free from any obligation, she comes back home and finds it so neat and ordered that she feels terrible, because there’s nothing for her to do. Her life has no meaning. She worked for her family her entire life, never taking time to do something for herself, to have hopes. She feels the emptiness created by everybody’s departure, a huge abyss opens under her” (Willoquet-Maricondi, Pedro Almodóvar: Interviews, p. 75). This 360-degree pan from her point of view registers the emptiness of the home. It appears that Gloria’s entire life has been about nothing but cooking and cleaning and serving her family. The film starts with Gloria as a housewife and thus, as far as the viewer is concerned, she might as well have been a housewife forever prior to that. It follows thus that when there is no longer a need to use her household appliances to serve her family, she has lost her raison d’etre. This is indeed what leads her to want to commit suicide at the end of the film.
It must be obvious after this discussion that when Almodóvar describes the household appliances as Gloria’s companions, he does not mean to suggest that they are her friends. Although they are the only entities that pay her any attention whatsoever, she is enslaved to them, and this is clearly detrimental to her relationships with her husband and children. Moreover, the household appliances represent the modern way of living for Gloria and her family, and as such reveal the lack of fundamental change despite the intervening years of the so-called economic miracle and the end of Francoism.
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