Early on in the proceedings, feminist director Susan Seidelman slips in a clip from Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In that thriller, a demure doormat becomes so obsessed with a wanton woman that she almost kills herself. Here, a mousey, New Jersey housewife, Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), fixates on a sexual adventuress, Susan (Madonna), and – yay! – never looks back.
Back in the 80s, my mum – a mature student, doing an MA in film studies – became besotted with this movie and the way Seidelman subverts the male gaze. I decorated my bedroom with stills of Susan, who began to seem like an extra member of the family. Basically, our lives were turned upside down by this armpit-flaunting, second-hand-clothes-wearing, force of nature.
Our love was not misplaced. The script, by Leora Barish and Craig Bolotin, seems as bold as ever and, if anything, Madonna’s performance appears more magical. She’s made many fictional movies since then, and messed them all up by trying too hard. Turns out, Susan is the (only) role she was born to play and it’s heaven to bask in her insouciance, as well as one of her best tracks, aka “Into the Groove”, recorded especially for the film.
Madonna and NYC are a scintillating fit. Thanks to cinematographer, Edward Lachman (now famous for his work on Carol), back-alleys and grungy apartments glow like Edward Hopper paintings.
Viewers may be tempted to drool over Aidan Quinn (adorably over intense as the Bleecker Street film technician who falls for Roberta), not to mention Arquette herself, whose body the film dangles before us. She’s squeezed into a bustier for a magic show. You can also see her areolas as she lies in a bubble bath. This is a breast-fest, albeit a supremely playful one.
What you have to remember is that, in Seidelman’s universe, laughter always trumps lust. Laurie Metcalf (pre-Roseanne and, obviously, pre her sublime turn in Lady Bird) is a riot as Roberta’s agitated sister-in-law, Leslie. Meanwhile, Valium-voiced comedian Steven Wright casts a spell as Leslie’s dentist boyfriend, Larry.
At the very end, Larry notices Susan and says, with a sigh, “She’s gorgeous!” Leslie gives him the fish-eye and growls, “Beauty fades!”
Desperately Seeking Susan has so much to say about truth and beauty. Beauty’s where you find it. And you will find it, here.
Desperately Seeking Susan is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime
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