Criterion Prediction #141: Desperately Seeking Susan, by Alexander Miller
Title: Desperately Seeking Susan
Director: Susan Seidelman
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Madonna, Aidan Quin, Laurie Metcalf, Mark Blum, Will Patton, Giancarlo Esposito, John Lurie, Steven Wright, Richard Hell
Synopsis: Roberta (Arquette), a meek housewife, finds a vicarious thrill by reading the correspondences of an enigmatic woman named Susan (Madonna) and the people who are “desperately seeking her” in the personals section of the newspaper. After a series of curious events the two women are scheduled to meet, but their rendezvous is bungled, and Roberta is stricken with amnesia, and Susan lands in jail. Afterward, Roberta begins to take on Susan’s carefree persona, leaving her dull lifestyle, and unfulfilling marriage behind her in a case of mistaken identity.
Critique: Desperately Seeking Susan was inspired by Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating; in some ways you could call it a remake. What makes it such a successful reimagining is that Seidelman captures the conceptual spirit of her inspiration without succumbing to pallid imitation. Desperately Seeking Susan retains the atmospheric dimensions of Celine and Julie Go Boating, with its relaxed narrative structure, mystical overtones, themes of bonding and friendship while making it’s urban locale very much a central part of the cast as well. But Seidelman New York setting takes the city-as-character into a broader spectrum because it emphasizes the films cultural import on a more substantial level. Her punk-informed tenor coats the movie in primary neons. This isn’t the rough-and-tumble punk climate of Repo Man with Black Flag and Circle Jerks. Desperately Seeking Susan is from the transitional era when the CBGB alumni were graduating to MTV and no-wave/new-wave were braiding into one another as groups like Blondie and Talking Heads were dominating the charts while avant-garde music was very much alive with the likes of James Chance and Glenn Branca. After her feature debut Smithereens which explored the NYC’s punk scene and the transparency of its female protagonist’s growth (film follows Wren, a runaway whose attempt to break into the NYC music scene is reduced to a series of self-destructive trysts). However Desperately Seeking Susan is a springboard for a more positive character arc in Roberta, whose journey into the cities underground frees her from an unfulfilling marriage with a cheating husband, and an empty life of bourgeois amenities.
The ensuing narrative is something of a classist parable as there’s a rift of yuppie and punk lifestyles; when Aidan Quinn’s Dez (I’d love to think that name is a Black Flag reference) encounters his ex-girlfriend, she’s clearly switched tribes and has locked arms with a young urban professional. Later, when Roberta’s husband Gary is close to finding her he’s a representation of outmoded and archaic values, he doesn’t know why he wants Roberta back, except Roberta’s his wife and a wife’s place is at home with her husband.
Desperately Seeking Susan is made all the more intriguing because it manages a full deck of strong thematic content. The film examines gender roles, channels feminism and doesn’t break a sweat in the process. It’s a smart film that doesn’t brag or swagger with its clever veneer and stylistic hallmarks. It’s a hypnotic treatise that doesn’t break a sweat in delivering a complicated story that is philosophically rewarding. The cast is exemplary, and while it might be easy to get caught up in the casting of Madonna, who is nothing short of perfect as the freewheeling Susan, this is Patricia Arquette’s movie, and her naturalistic charm is illuminating. Aidan Quinn is understatedly compelling in the role of Dez, and John Turturro puts in a solid performance as an energetic emcee; look fast for Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Wright, John Lurie, and punk rock legend Richard Hell.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Desperately Seeking Susan feels like a movie everyone has heard of and hasn’t seen. Criterion recently announced they’ll be releasing Susan Seidelman’s debut Smithereens and, after inaugurating a new director to the collection, this title would be the most logical follow up to expand on her filmography. Given Madonna’s presence as a pop star, it might overshadow the significance of the film. However, this is a unique and essential movie that is in need of a second life. While the Kino Lorber Blu-ray is commendable, it’s somewhat underwhelming. While nothing is supporting that this or Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating are getting the Criterion treatment, it would be a brilliant pair of films to have in the collection.