REVIEW: DVD Release: Susana

Film: Susana
Release date: 14th March 2011
Certificate: 12
Running time: 80 mins
Director: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Fernando Soler, Rosita Quintana, Víctor Manuel Mendoza, Matilde Palou, María Gentil Arcos
Genre: Drama
Studio: Mr. Bongo
Format: DVD
Country: Mexico

In the 1940s, infamous director Luis Buñel moved to Mexico and began a regeneration of his career. Susana (The Devil & The Flesh) was released in 1951, and represents a slight detour from the total surrealism of previous works, such as the internationally renowned Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or. Here, the director focuses on a narrative tale of a family in Mexico, however, the film still maintains the surrealist stamp of Buñel in other, subtler ways.

Susana is set in Mexico, where a wealthy family find their lives disrupted when a beautiful woman arrives at their ranch one stormy night. Susana has recently escaped a reformatory, although she lies and blames an abusive husband for her unruly state, saying she escaped a family he had sent her to live with. The mother empathises with Susana, saying she can stay with them in return for helping them with general chores about the house.

Susana (played by Rosita Quintana) is a beautiful woman, and soon sets pulses racing amongst both the men on the staff and the men of the household. Alberto, the son, takes a particular shine to the newcomer, as does Jesus, who looks after the horses.

The older servant sees the fact that Susana arrived during a storm as a bad omen, warning the matriarch that this can only lead to bad news, and as Susana starts to play each man against each other, and cause disruption in the family home, it appears her warnings should have been heeded…

Historically, Buñel has used shocking images (the slicing of an eyeball in Chien Andalou) and the unexpected (the disintegration of the bishops in L’Age D’Or) to express his surrealist motivations. Susana still rejects the traditional way of life, but as mentioned, this is done in a subtler manner. Buñel takes a traditionally Mexican bourgeoisie family and uses a sexually liberated woman to disrupt them. The ease with which Susana corrupts and manipulates the male characters serves to mock the system which had restrained her, and shows the ease at which the traditional values championed in this era can so easily be destroyed.

Susana appears in the midst of a storm, when she leaves footage is shown of a new dawn. This use of pathetic fallacy and the cry of the maid that a storm could only mean the devil is at work lends a fantastical tone to the film. At times, it feels like Bela Lugosi might appear from behind a stable door.

Susana is supposed to represent a demon in flesh’s form, yet the means Susana uses to seduce Alberto, Jesus and eventually the father (Guadalupe) are mostly innocent, and at times farcical (pretending to fall over being the most common). This could be yet another ploy by Buñel to highlight how fairly innocent sexual desire can be construed as the work of the devil in this traditional society - the tendency of the traditional manner of seeing anything progressive as being dangerous.

The sudden return to reality as the cause of the disruption (Susana) is removed, and the ease with which the mother forgives her husband’s adultery, also highlights the ease with which the bourgeois are content to sweep true feelings under the carpet. The mother again scolds her son for sitting at the table before his father, as she did at the start of the film, suggesting that despite the uproar and emotional damage to her marriage, she will always seek sanctity in convention, returning to her normal daily routine. By doing this, Buñel succeeds in making the viewer question who is actually worse, the manipulative Susana, who is open in her motivations, or the family, who prefer to save face, but in doing so lie to themselves.

Buñel manages to convey the machismo traditional in Mexican society effectively as the men tussle for Susana in quite a possessive bravado fashion. There are some highly charged exchanges between Jesus and Susana as their wits are played against each other at break neck speed, and as a comedy, this should not fail to tickle on occasion. However, the slapstick chain of events does not really deliver the darker moments that the dramatic full title of Susana seems to promise. After the dramatic opening scene’s set to a musical fanfare, the film becomes almost light hearted and devoid of emotion and depth. It can, at times, feel like a series of events thrown together, and the ending is a little too neatly wrapped up, with very little having seemed to have changed in reality to the family. If Buñel truly wished to mock the bourgeoisie, why have they escaped relatively unscathed? They are still wealthy, together, and happy, albeit in denial.

Those seeking a surrealist masterpiece will be disappointed as Susana comes across as a quickly penned comedy, as if Buñel is dipping his toes into farce. Susana seems to walk the line between a western and a musical. There are no dream-like imaginings or occurrences which truly shock.

Susana seems like a fairytale, but with neither the traditional happy ending route followed, nor an outright rejection of the classic formula. This ambiguousness and lightness in itself can be seen as surreal, but should a viewer have to work that hard to find subtleties? Susana is best seen as a comedy, a farcical experiment. It is easy to watch, with the beauty of Quintana being an attraction in itself. However, as a film from a surrealist director who has pushed the boundaries of filmmaking, Susana doesn’t quite fulfil expectations. AT

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