The new Gael Garcia Bernal film, based on the Spanish novel “Deserted Cities” by Jose Agustin explores the changing nature of male-female relationships in Mexico and the world. This entire concept of the changing nature of female roles in the world has been a big topic in this year’s films, including “The Eagle Huntress” (from Mongolia) and documentaries “Girls Don’t Fly” and “The Swedish Theory of Love,” (in which we learn that the growing independence of women in Swedish society means that full 25% of Swedes now die alone.) Perhaps that is to be expected in a presidential election year in the United States in which a woman heads the top of a major party ticket for the first time.
“You’re Killing Me, Susana” played to a packed house, which I attribute to the star power presence of Gael Garcia Bernal, who broke out with “Y tu Mama Tambien” (2001) but is also known to U.S. audiences for “Babel” and television’s “Mozart in the Jungle.”
“You’re Killing Me, Susana” is charmingly hilarious, depicting a womanizing Mexican actor (Gael Garcia Bernal was a Mexican soap opera star in real life) named Eligio whose wife abandons him in the dead of night and strikes off for a writers’ conference in Iowa. Upon reading this plot point, I assumed the Writers’ Workshop would be the world-renowned Writers’ Workshop at my alma mater, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, so I was interested in seeing how it was portrayed.
That assumption proved incorrect, as the scenes that represent Iowa were actually shot in Winnipeg, Canada and the college is the fictitious Middlebrook College, which looks nothing like the “real” Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa (nor the city of Iowa City).
The plot has Eligio walk off the soap opera set in the middle of filming (when a fellow actress protests, he says, “Tell them to kill me. It’s a soap.”) to chase his now missing wife to the United States, landing at Central Iowa International Airport, (which is non-existent, as well). Funny scenes ensue at the airport when he is rather vague about where he will be staying while in the U.S. and Customs steps in to perform a strip search.
When Eligio reaches Iowa, there are many amusing scenes of culture shock. I remember this theme from as far back as 1979’s “Time After Time” when Jack the Ripper is transported into the present and must cope with modern life. The culture shock between coming from Mexico City and landing in whatever fictional city in Iowa this is supposed to be is no less vivid to Eligio. In fact, one of the funniest scenes involves him stiffing the cab driver for an $84 fare from the airport and hiding in piles of leaves on campus to avoid paying. Eligio seems to always be big on breaking petty rules, which makes him lovable but also exasperating.
Neither Eligio nor Susana can believe that nobody is out walking around on the streets of the (supposedly) Midwestern town, when he is from Mexico City, one of the most crowded cities in the world. Eligio is also upset to learn that Susana has been having a fling with a Polish poet, who stands at least a foot taller than Eligio. I admit that I also laughed out loud at the prospect of Eligio trying to drive a car to Chicago through a blizzard when Susana and the poet flee again. Eligio obviously knows nothing about driving in Midwestern winter weather and proves this.
Director Sneider, who now lives in the United States, when asked, after the film, about his reaction to seeing it in Chicago said, “When I saw it, I wanted to change it. I tend to think different things, even in editing.” He added, “I love the character of Eligio. He is deplorable in many ways, but very human. I also saw an exploration of how relationships between men and women are being re-imagined. (See first paragraph above) We think we are beyond machismo, but we’re not. I think it’s a lot about self discovery. Eligio feels fidelity is overrated—until he experiences infidelity. It’s definitely not funny then. We see the characters fighting themselves.”
Sneider added that much of the dialogue was improvised and that Gael Garcia Bernal (who is also a director) enjoys improvising, unlike some other actors. “It feels very raw, spontaneous and fresh (if you improvise). I felt this was important to get that feeling of freshness.”
Sneider commented on the jump cuts in the film, cutting through the scenes to pick the moments and improvising in front of the camera. “I think he does some very deep serious roles but I, personally, like to see his great sense of humor and how he gets to display that here.”
Sneider also remarked that “music was super important because the music softens the tone.” He gave credit for much of the music to a San Antonio based group (StumpFhauser and Victor Hernandez) and said that the entire movie was shot with a hand-held camera. He mentioned the song “Uncertainties of the Heart.” We hear the lyric “He who loves a woman doesn’t know what he gains when he loses her. Another one comes along.”
When asked how much time is supposed to have passed between the time that Susana leaves and Eligio follows her, he said, “7 months and 3 days” with a laugh, leading me to believe he plucked the number from thin air. He added, “I wanted the ending to be a little like the end of ‘The Graduate.’ They each look at one another and say, ‘What now?’ I think the characters are both full of defects, but they’re still the same. I actually think with many couples you think, ‘Should we be in this position?’ There are some things in relationships that we can’t explain.”
When asked about the casting of Veronica Echegui opposite the male lead he admitted that he was “looking for chemistry between the leads” and that he found it in the lovely Veronica, who plays Susana, a strong-willed, beautiful woman who is also a great writer and wants to find her own fulfillment of her own talent.
Sneider said that Gael Garcia Bernal has done 3 adaptations of Mexican novels and that this novel (“Deserted Cities”) is “very much an exploration of what it means to be a Mexican man.” He commented, “In Mexico, he’s just a guy. Now, in the U.S., he’s a Mexican guy.”
American audiences (especially female audiences) will probably wonder why it took Susana so long to pack up and leave. She had plenty of provocation prior to her actual departure.
The ending, which is faithful to the book and involves Eligio spanking Susana, was also questionable, but adhered to the novelist’s vision. (Good luck with that approach with feminist audiences in the U.S.)