Saturday, February 18, 2012

Luis Buñuel: Susana, Take Two

In my previous post on Luis Buñuel's Susana: Carne y demonio (1950/51) / The Devil and the Flesh (1953), it was noted that "Las Palmas Hacienda hums along with everyone in their 'proper
place' . . . until Susana arrives."

How did the system function?  Ideally, as successful haciendas more or less had for centuries. Here, Don Guadalupe and Doña Carmen preside. As the latter says to her spouse: "You handle the workers. I'll handle the maids." Jesús, a sort of macho cowboy dandy, does most of the day-to-day management of outdoor laborers. Alberto, the owners' son, studies the flora and fauna of the hacienda grounds (standing in for Buñuel, who was obsessed with such details), and reads a lot of books. Felisa is chief maid and domestic advisor to Doña Carmen, as well as primary upholder of traditional Catholicism. The maids maintain interior domestic spaces, while outdoors, mostly the men maintain buildings, grounds and livestock. The system is hierarchical.

Into this placid status quo comes Susana, after escaping from the State Reformatory during a dramatic storm.  Felisa, the chief maid and font of folk wisdom, notes: "This kind of storm is the Devil's doing . . . Holy Mary, what a night . . . The Devil seems to be on the loose." When Don Guadalupe and Doña Carmen take the bedraggled Susana in, Felisa remains skeptical. "The quiet ones are the worst," she quips. Later, she adds, "As the saying goes, 'From the street will come she who will throw you out of your own house" and, "Raise crows and they will tear your eyes out."

Susana (Rosita Quintana) brings the challenge and it's soon evident that "all that seems solid melts into air." Her mere presence drives Jesús, Alberto and Don Guadalupe crazy with desire. Much drama -- and hilarity -- ensues. The status quo is upended.

Jesús makes the first bid, and though he seems at first to succeed in his advances, Susana stands her ground among the Carmelite ruins at the edge of Las Palmas Hacienda. "You're insane," she tells him. "I don't belong to any man nor to his desires." But she is also coy. "If you behave, we can find a way. If you don't . . ."  Jesús caves in immediately. "You got me, you little devil. I'll do anything you say . . ."

Alberto falls, too. Busque a la mujer, cherchez la femme. Susana "slays" him among a pile of books, after she asks why he keeps the ones he's already read. His answer: "Books are kept out of fondness." Before long, he's hiding in a well with her and in between meetings, brooding.

When Don Guadalupe falls for Susana (a slow burn), Doña Carmen picks up on the vibe immediately. "Why are you acting this way?"  The two battle over power and "nagging." 
Don Guadalupe: "Women!"
Doña Carmen: "Men!"  
Doña Carmen, too, starts to lose her self-control, and eventually, with Felisa's bolstering, goes directly after Susana. Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned. But Buñuel shows equally this: hell hath no fury like a man spurned.

Which brings us to the opening sequence, and Susana's opening lines at the State Reformatory: "Let go of me, you damn fools!" Just before her escape, she yells at her handlers, "You're in here because you're useless out there!" And indeed, what is useful behavior and what is useless?  What is proper and what is not in this best of all possible worlds? 

Today's Rune: Harvest.      

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