By Kierran Horner.
Susana (1951) is a minor Buñuel film, even within the scope of his comparatively weak Mexican period, as director for hire. A melodrama, ostensibly in the moralistic mould of Hogarth’s ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ say, it plots the brief rise and re-descent of its eponymous, sexually-suffused anti-heroine. Depicted in the, efficient, overture as an aggressive, expletive-mouthed delinquent (an older sister to the boys of Los Olividados, 1950), solitarily confined for a fortnight in a reformatory, her gaolers are heard to pronounce that her behaviour has worsened over the ensuing three years since she came to them. On an unnaturally thunderous night, she prays for her release, utilising the silhouette cross made on the dirt-floor of her cell by the window-bars, pre-empting the eschewing of religious sanctity to come. Her prayers are answered when she discovers that those very same bars are simply lifted from their frame, and she escapes into the storm.
Inter-cut with her progression through the saturated Mexican countryside are scenes of an affluent Mexican family on their ranch; father, son, mother, ranch-hands, including Jesus, and maids, including the elderly Felisa (the clown of the piece, given to superstitious proclamations). On this tempestuous night, Don Guadalupe’s prize mare gives birth to a stillborn foal and is struck with an inexplicable fever, seemingly justifying Felisa’s portent about the devil being nearby, just as Susana appears at a window. The drenched, limp girl is brought into the house and, near-immediately, under the wing of matriarch Dona Carmen. Here it may be timely to note the film’s alternative title, The Devil and the Flesh.
Allotted menial chores in exchange for her bed and board, Susana is given rein to roam the ranch, where immediately, chief farmhand Jesus attempts to bridle her. Here begins her seduction of the three male characters utilising her raw natural beauty, although beautiful is maybe a little too close to beatific, so buxom will do.
The speed with which Susana progresses through father, son and staff (although she is not so confident of her charms to try the same-sex seductions that Terence Stamp’s ‘Visitor’ did in Pasolini’s Teorema) is reminiscent of the plates of Hogarth’s tales, excising dead time, promoting incidents only, the swift rise and fall of the anti-protagonist, equally characteristic of melodrama. Yet, this technique is also typically Buñuelian, he was no Béla Tarr, in his attempts to critique the men within the confines of the morality play he is composing, he must highlight the speed with which these men, superficially moralistic, break once temptation drapes herself under their noses. This same theme would run through Viridiana (1961) and dictate the entire (flashback of a) narrative of Obscure Object of Desire (1977); that man allows nothing to impinge on the satiating of a passion, not friendship, familial bonds, nor, even, that the object of his desire loves an/other/s.
If we compare Susana to the finer films of Buñuel’s Mexican period only, with Gran Turismo (1947) and The Young One (1960) – before the transitory Viridiana (1961) and The Exterminating Angel (1962) – as the parameters, it could easily be positioned as a lesser work. It isn’t painted over with the grimy realism puckered by bubbles of surrealism, as is Los Olividados; nor does it share the subtle moral ambiguity of Nazarin (1959); nor the delicious, wicked wit of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). Yet it does anticipate his later Spanish/French work and shares those distinctly Buñuellian tropes; his fetish for shoes ands legs, distinct in Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and Tristana (1970); and the twin acids of anarchic surrealism and anti-authoritarian vitriol splashed in the faces of all systemic, repressive powers, but especially that of religion and its homogenising processes, apparent in anything he ever made, from Un chien Andalou (1929) through Simon of the Desert (1965) to The Phantom of Liberty (1974).
Jesus, Don Guadalupe and his son Alberto are intoxicated by Susana, men unmoored from morality, broken against the rocks of unrepressed sexuality (Jesus is fired by a jealous Don Guadalupe, the latter and Alberto come within seconds of striking one another in a fight for Susana’s affections). Then they opt for staid moral and religious stagnation. Once Jesus reveals Susana’s whereabouts to the authorities, completing the male triumvirate of treachery, and she is returned to the borstal, all that has passed is ignored.
The deliberately saccharine concluding scene is a pastiche of normalcy, the happy ending. Jesus is re-employed, awkwardly, father and son share a look of affection and Don Guadalupe even finds it in him to show affection for Dona Carmen. They are all good Christians again. As with much of Buñuel, one can briefly understand the occasional accusations of sexism, the woman who acts independently, follows her sexuality is here branded whore and devil, and is finally, returned to her hell, after tempting good religious men to corruption. Susana is not, in any way a fully formed character; she is a tool of Buñuel’s critique of hypocrisy inherent in religious process. Yet, as Buñuel doesn’t believe in God, no more can he believe in devils.
Final note: the shot where the camera takes in all three men watching Susana’s window – sweeping through space from face to face – is pure Buñuel.
Kierran Horner lives in London where he works and writes and previously studied English Literature as an undergraduate, and, as a postgraduate, Film Studies both at the University of London.