I’ve only seen a few Bunuel’s cheap Mexican productions but as a fan of Ulmer and 1930s-1940s Poverty Row they really do something for me. SUSANA is no exception, despite the drubbing some fans give it. In his Film Epidemic blog, for example, Joel Harmon says SUSANA’s “purpose is muddled and the film’s narrative is not compelling enough to pick up the slack. A fairly insignificant effort from a great filmmaker.”
Purpose? Muddled? Insignificant? Master? This may be the least muddled of any Bunuel movie, and that’s the whole purpose; the way in which sledgehammer symbolism subverts the “pro-family” message and its significance in championing the chaos of casual sex over the family. To call Bunuel a master is to put too much pressure on a film like this, kind of like elevating a schoolboy to pope since he dared to pee on the pope’s shoes.
Much more of a Mexican horror film than strict “art,” SUSANA is a subtextually resplendent sister to the Dracula legend: a thunderstorm opening, Susana sleeping and creeping amid rats and spiders in the basement of the local Reform School… and there’s traces of the nymphomaniac hospital patients in LA NOTTE and SHOCK CORRIDOR wrapped into Susana’s excellent character. She’s awesome. Her ambitious gold-digging makes Barbara Stanwyck and Lady MacBeth seem tepid; she does everything but hiss at the camera like a snake.
American bourgeois audiences should make sure to note the fine rapport between family members–the respect they have for one another around the dinner table–before Susana commences her homewrecking in earnest. As for her mysterious reform school crimes (we never know why she’s there), the “muddle” is a dead giveaway if you can read code: nymphomania!
What fever mirage of “the ideal upper class Mexican ranch family with strong ties to the earth and to the Virgin Mary. Mother of God” can survive against the hot beating heart of this hussy? She’s as inviting and alluring as can be, but as the abject outcast of this sun-bleached unit, she’s the bad guy. Even though, of course, we openly share in her lascivious victories. Meanwhile, papa’s favorite mare is stuck in a painful twilight after ghosting a stillborn; more symbolism. Is papa’s love for the mare supposed to make up for the fact that he breeds her and rides her like an animal?
Despite his naughty subversiveness, Bunuel shows innate respect for the power of the patriarchal family; when the son kisses papa’s ring, you feel the electric charge of patriarchal power like it’s zapping out of a Strickfadden Frankenstein. The old maid who is wise to Susana’s goldigging tricks runs around like Maria Ouspenskaya crossed with Chuz Lampreave (1940s Universal horror by way of Almodovar), warning of the viper in the house; but at the same time this old maid is kind of patient and almost amused as the whole tragedy play itself out. It’s just too bad Susana doesn’t have an old Nietszchean professor writing her encouraging letters, as Stanwyck had in the much glitzier BABY FACE.
With its cheap indoor sets and backdrops (and I always love poverty row style rain and lightning), SUSANA is very reminiscent of the PRC output of Edgar G. Ulmer, specifically desert-themed work like DETOUR and TOMORROW WE LIVE. And as befits Mexico’s reputation for steaminess, there’s much implied sex behind closed doors. Each of the hombres is granted one good trespass with Susana, the before and aftermaths of which we witness through Bunuel’s openly fetishistic camera. The most fetishistic part involves the father oiling his long rifle with manly strokes of his cloth while Susana scrubs scrubs scrubs a nearby spot (pictured at right).
Man, those Catholics they invented the sexual loophole (it’s not a sin if we use symbols) and the fiery surrealist Bunuel sure knows how to sublimate and symbolize, like the proverbial dickens. When she gets egg all over her skirt after wrestling with a caballero in the chicken coop, you can stop worrying and bask in the sledgehammer sunshine of it all; Bunuel will supply the goop, all you have to do is rub your nose in it and the answer will appear: Viva la Muertita!