Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Devil is a woman: The melodramatic delirium of Luis Buñuel's Susana

(Written for the Luis Buñuel blogathon.)

Luis Buñuel is my favorite filmmaker of all time. Much of my cinephilic adventurousness can be credited to digging up his films early on; teenage interests in surrealism and Roger Ebert's Video Companion led me to The Exterminating Angel (one of the first films, along with Lindsay Anderson's if...., I ever actively sought out), and after being thoroughly blown away by that film I became obsessed with watching whatever else I could get my hands on from this crazy Spaniard. Availability being what it is, though, I ended up being intimately familiar with his old-master French films (Tristana is the only one I still haven't seen) and far less so with his exile-in-Mexico period. About all I'd been able to find prior to this year was the delightfully odd The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz and El Bruto. My recollection of the latter is hazy, but I remember it being a well-made but uncharacteristically straightforward bit of melodrama. I had every reason to expect 1951's Susana to be much of the same.

And much of the same it is but only on the surface. Susana is indeed a melodrama, but it traffics in melodrama that's been left to bake in the sun until it becomes fetid with sickness. Where Buñuel's later films often deal in things inexplicable and ambiguous, Susana is hilariously blunt-minded in portraying its title character as a hellion and temptress who blasts the comfortable dynamic of a wealthy ranch family all to hell. If El Bruto felt like an assigned job, Susana shows Buñuel taking something similar and doing all he can to subvert the assignment.

The mania starts almost immediately, as we open on Susana being dragged to a reformatory cell by a group of nuns; she kicks and screams, calls the nuns bitches, spits at one of them and generally sets the tone for her wicked ways to come. A fervent prayer to God and a loose window later, she escapes confinement and steals off into the storm-swept night (after being confronted in her cell by a fake bat and a real rat), where after a long soggy journey she lands at the doorstep of Don Guadalupe and his family -- wife Doña Carmen, son Alberto, housekeeper Felisa, head ranchero Jesús (the symbolism, presumably, is intentional) and various other rancheros. Her arrival is heralded by devout Felisa screaming about a devil at the window, the first of Buñuel's many bald references to Susana as such.

Her subsequent actions belie such labels. She first insinuates herself into the trust of Doña Carmen by playing the victim card, claiming to be on the run from an abusive stepfather. Once safely ensconced within the household, she sets about attracting the attention of both the young scholar Alberto and the fatherly Don Guadalupe; she also attracts the much rougher affections of crude alpha-male Jesús.

One wonders, why does she do this? The opening scenes suggest Susana is psychologically driven to wantonness; as a nymphomaniac, she would then be unable to control her own urges. That, however, would involve some manner of helplessness or mental instability on Susana's part. In another film, that might be a valid explanation, but Buñuel takes great care to show Susana clearly enjoying the chaos she creates. (Note in particular the scene where Buñuel cuts from a familial dispute to a shot of Susana raising her eyebrow and smirking with delectable sinfulness, the just as quickly cuts back to the dispute.) More likely, she simply enjoys sowing discord as any good agent of Satan would. And things like the blatant Freudian symbolism involved in Don Guadalupe's fondling/polishing of his rifles while scolding Susana for her inappropriate clothing, or the initial encounter between Susana and Jesús that ends with Susana breaking an egg and having the yolk run down her legs, intimates that Buñuel is having just as much fun as she is.

As expected, Susana's devious machinations lead to no small amount of conflict -- Jesús is fired after being discovered "molesting" Susana, Alberto abandons his studies, and Don Guadalupe becomes distant from his wife, even overriding her authority in dealing with the house staff when Doña Carmen tries to fire Susana for laziness and impudence (and, unstated, the fact that Carmen caught her making out with Don Guadalupe). Things come to a head one bleak evening when Alfredo reveals his love for Susana and his intention to run off with her, which is naturally forbidden by his father; meanwhile, Doñ Carmen, egged on by the eye-for-an-eye malice of Felisa, decides to dole out some Old-World punishment in the form of a horse-whipping. (The shot of Carmen, lit by blazing white light and fury etched on her face, viciously flailing the whip onto Susana's person is the film's most memorable.) The gleeful chaos makes for fine entertainment, yet Buñuel's slyest and nastiest joke comes right after.

True to melodrama form, the status quo is rebalanced when the shunned Jesús returns with the police to cart Susana back to the reformatory from whence she came. The last scene shows order in the Guadalupe household tentatively restored, with the whole family watching a sunrise that Felisa calls proof of God's divine grace. Here's the thing, though -- Jesús expels the sinner from the garden, so to speak, but he's also the one who carried her into the house when she arrived. And presumably, the same God who kept the family together is the one who damn near tore them apart by answering Susana's pleas for freedom. Right under the guise of good Christian values, Buñuel snuck in a cynical, atheistic dig at the concept of a fair and just God. How very much like Luis to be laughing up his sleeve the whole time.


Blogger Flickhead said...

I'm very glad you joined in the blogathon, Steve!

Too little has been written about his Mexican films in this Buñuelathon, so the review of Susana is especially welcome.

I'm deliberately putting off reading your piece until I see the new DVD that's due out soon. I saw Susana once, over twenty years ago during a VHS Buñuel blitz I went through (remember Connoisseur Video?), but time has melded a lot of those early pictures together in my mind. (For example, I can't distinguish Mexican Bus Ride from Illusion Travels by Streetcar, two films I also haven't seen in twenty years.)

But I'm looking forward to reading your review.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Joe D said...

A great review of this under appreciated film. I haven't seen it for some time but I remember an incredible image, when Jesus carries Susana in, her hair is dripping wet, she's unconscious, her breasts are prominently displayed in the frame. It reminds me of a Man Ray photograph, fraught with subconscious desires. Also the way Susana pulls the shoulders of her dress down prior to vamping on a male victim. But I think my favorite part is the beginning where she escapes, it's right out of DeSade.

4:54 PM  
Blogger John Santos said...

Great review! I saw this film as part of a Latin American retrospective at the LA County Museum of Art. It was nice to see a Bunuel film on a large screen (come to think of it, I've never seen a Bunuel film on a small screen), but I much, much prefered the more straightforward melodrama from Argentina, Rosaura a las 10, that followed it.

Susana I think epitomizes why I dislike Bunuel's films in general, and his Mexican products in particular. His films are very well made, but mostly feel like cynical potshots than anything else. His Mexican films have the feel of a European film about Mexican society. In Ensayo de un crimen, he tackles the illusion of machismo without ever actually finding anything particularly Mexican that is macho (the bourgeois buffon is such a lame replacement for the Mexican cowboy). In Susana, when he does use the cowboy, he portrays him more as an archetype (again, as a figure being understood by an alien) rather than a genuine national symbol that has personal as well as patriotic implications to the people he represents.

Although it is perfectly OK that Bunuel would present such a disaffected view of Mexican cinema--I mean, he is an alien to the culture--it is nevertheless a shame that the slow rediscovery of his Mexican products is not matched by the rediscovery of indigenous Mexican filmmakers such as Indio Fernandez, Felipe Cazals, and Arturo Ripstein. Whereas many critics and acdemics see Bunuel's Mexican phase as an attempt at reconsdieration of Mexican cinema itself, Mexican filmmakers complicate the act of re-considering by inserting into their analysis the element of personal connection to the norms they attack. Bunuel offers the safety of an outsider's view of a culture, Ripstein and Fernandez offers merely the culture, warts and all.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Flickhead: Thanks for having me! Ah, the Connoisseur Video days... I still own their release of Diary of a Chambermaid. The copy of Susana I watched was also their handiwork -- I've been slowly working through Buñuel's Mexican films using my local library system. So it's all good. Glad to see it's getting a DVD release soon, though...

Joe: Yeah, the constant shift of her dress's neckline was never not funny.

John: Interesting criticism, and certainly valid on the whole re: Luis, though I find his cynicism bracing rather than off-putting -- it's not aimless everything-sucks cynicism, I think, but rather the cynicism of a man who early on learned to question what he was told and wants his audience to do the same. I do wonder, though, if Susana is really meant as a reflection of Mexican society or if it's just a potboiler that Buñuel decided to have a little fun with. Los Olvidados, yes. Susana, maybe not so much. But I can see where you're coming from on that.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Hey -- great blog you got here. Just ran into it because I was looking for a film called "Telephone Book" that you did a review of a while back.

Any way you know how to get a hold of that film? Your response or advice is much appreciated!

2:15 PM  

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