The place is Madrid, and the woman is Gloria (Carmen Maura), a housewife with a cleaning job that provides for her family, all of whom live with her in a cramped apartment. Her teenage sons are drug dealers, her mother-in-law (Chus Lampreave) went dotty years ago and now is obsessed with various things like muffins, and her husband Polo (Luis Hostalot) is a taxi driver who once made quite a bit of money forging letters from Adolf Hitler for his German celebrity boss at the time, though while he left some years ago, he still dreams of returning to her. Now that money is nowhere to be seen, as is any sympathy Polo might have for his wife, or any interest in the rest of his brood, which may be why Gloria throws herself at another man at work...
But nothing is ever simple, a lesson that you may not need to learn from the movies, though writer and director Pedro Almodóvar was going to teach it to you regardless in one of his early efforts that nonetheless represented a sure and steady maturing of his style and themes. As ever, his interest in depicting the everyday stress that women go through, especially the ordinary women of Spain, was to the fore, and it was this support he was wanting to offer that was quickly making his name as one of the finest male directors of actresses since the days of George Cukor in Hollywood. What gave him the edge was his sense of humour, which may have been tempered over the years with occasional returns to his old ways, but here was firing on all cylinders.
If this was not his funniest movie, it was close to the top, a mishmash of outrageous jokes and premises that was so complicated you might not be able to catch everything on first viewing, such was the density of the plot. If you were being unkind you could observe he was lacking discipline, and his punk roots were showing, but this barrage of scenes had its own appeal, and was often laugh out loud funny even as he indulged himself in pathos that your average soap opera might have balked at featuring. How far you went with the emotional sequences was very much dependent on acclimatising yourself to Almodóvar's sensibilities, and many preferred his jokes to his tugs on the audience's heartstrings.
Nevertheless, that inherent sympathy with his female characters, Gloria in particular, amounted to his trademark, and his heroine here was certainly put through the mill though remaining as wacky as the others she shared the screen with at times. She has neighbours who have their own eccentricities, such as the prostitute Crystal (Véronica Forqué, who would take the lead in Kika, possibly the director's most controversial work), or the harassed single mother Juani (Kiti Mánver) who makes no secret of her hatred for her young daughter. That daughter had an intriguing aspect, since she has psychic powers that were reminiscent of Roald Dahl's book Matilda, and it would not be that much of a stretch to wonder if the great writer had lifted her persona for his own work, for a very good reason.
That being Almodóvar had lifted a plotline for this from one of Dahl's most famous "twist in the tale" short stories, Lamb to the Slaughter, which occurred later on in the narrative and added spice to an already overcrowded yarn. If there were tributes going on, and you'd like to think there were, then you couldn't have wished to find them in two such distinctive voices, one in literature and the other in cinema, and you had to assume much respected electropop duo Pet Shop Boys were also making their appreciation of the director clear when they borrowed the English language title of what was originally ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? for their hit collaboration with Dusty Springfield. Back at this effort, and it was so stuffed with incident that it might begin to wash over you, from the policeman who tempts Gloria into the shower at the gym where she works only to discover he is impotent (which is treated surprisingly seriously) to one of the sons being sold to a pervert dentist for his own pleasure because money is tight, but then it would recover with a genuinely hilarious line or set-up. Certainly one of this filmmaker's better comedies.