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#52filmsbywomen 8 – Desperately Seeking Susan

Posted on: April 2, 2016


No. 8 – Desperately Seeking Susan(Susan Seidelman, 1985)

I felt reasonably confident of what Desperately Seeking Susan was about. Some films you don’t need to see to have their number – Dirty Dancing won’t put Baby in the corner, Lethal Weapon’s too old for this shit. And Desperately Seeking Susan sees Madonna from off of the 80s dancing into Rosanna Arquette’s dreary life and shaking things up with wardrobe montages and sassy soundbites. Instead, it turns out that the lead characters in this pop-feminism don’t actually meet until late, late in the film, and only by the grace of the convoluted plot become friends rather than enemies, given that they end up sharing each other’s identities and, to some extent, beds.

Desperately Seeking Susan is totally nutty. Set in a New York where Douglas Sirk-style housewives follow newspaper announcements with the same vigour as soap operas. Roberta, bored and mostly alone apart from Julia Child, eagerly reads updates on the mysterious Susan, a free spirit who can only be reached through the personals ads. In a feeble attempt to sum up the plot, I’ll say Roberta ends up following Susan around town, buying her distinctive jacket from a thrift store, finding a locker key with Susan’s belongings, arranging to meet Susan to return it, suffering a head injury and being mistaken for Susan, and believing she must be Susan herself.  If there’s one thing an 80s comedy loves, it’s an amnesia plotline. But that’s not even including the murder by defenestration, the stolen Egyptian earrings, and the magician searching for a new assistant. If you’re confused now, imagine how long I’ve been googling to remind myself of the different plot lines.

I suppose my disappointment is rooted in my strong impression of the sort of film it was going to be. This is a) dangerous and b) my fault, and can result in occasions like the Crimson Peak incident (a whole separate blog post). But I was looking forward to a Thelma and Louise-esque ballad of sisterhood, with less homicide and more and cut off shirts. I wanted a slightly subversive, day-glo jaunt around contemporary NYC, punk haunts and vintage stores, club nights and adventure. And there is that, some of that, a bit of that, but it just drowns under the weight of the plot. The way to survive over-plotted movies is to sit back and just take in the atmosphere (I’m thinking basically any attempt to translate Raymond Chandler), but Desperately Seeking Susan can’t sit still long enough to allow you to take the opportunity. This film should have the merest sliver of a story. But can we really complain when an 80s studio film is too high-concept? This is the era that put robots in Rocky films.

More high-minded critics see this film as a remake of Celine And Julie Go Boating, which I think it precarious but possible. But this highlights precisely my issue with Seidelman’s film. Celine And Julie Go Boating is preposterous nonsense, but hung on the core of the strong friendship between the two main characters, building a good will that means we’re reading to follow them into all their adventures. It is subversive and naughty. Desperately Seeking Susan’s wackiness is based almost entirely in fashion. The opening credits follow Roberta as she is manicured and primped in a beauty salon, later followed by Susan’s low-key rinsing in the station bathroom. Susan abandons her distinctive jacket in exchange for studded boots, and Roberta can’t resist buying it, looking great in New York but out of place in her fancy home. “You bought a used jacket?” her husband asks, “what are we, poor?” Roberta’s attempts to mimic Susan are too successful, resulting in the mistaken identity and the amnesia, and the stint in the magic club. Roberta is trying on Susan’s skin. Susan ‘s wild fashion feels as comfortable in Roberta’s bourgeois suburban home as Roberta’s attempt stuck out. Even the film’s attempts at depth all centre around surface concepts.

Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial hit and warmly received by critics. Rosanna Arquette won a BAFTA (in the supporting category, oddly enough) and it has remained a cult hit ever since. So where did Susan Seidelman go? She directed a few more knockabout 80s films, worked sporadically in television and made an Oscar nominated short. For all my hesitations about Desperately Seeking Susan, Seidelman does a fine job making a distinctive film, and it’s a shame she hasn’t yet enjoyed a similar opportunity. There’s always room for style in cinema, so long someone’s there to edit down the script.


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