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Under lockdown, a lot of us seem to fixate on self-improvement and transformation. There seems to be a prevailing sense that we ought to emerge from our dormant state reborn, shedding our uglier or lazier selves. This is certainly the message beaming from my phone: advertisements for travel and clothes and cosmetics swapped out for fitness apps, food trackers and one very persistent charlatan who wants me to fast intermittently. Of course it’s a total sham and a distraction, but it can be tough to rewire a reasoning so deeply ingrained.
Susan Seidelman’s weird comedies Desperately Seeking Susan and She-Devil (both streaming now on Stan) are rife with these tensions of betterment. They centre on listless women, scraping up against the confines of society’s expectations, but who undergo a far more radical and freeing reinvention in circumstances almost as absurd as our own.
Seidelman directed Desperately Seeking Susan three years after her 1982 low-budget punk debut Smithereens, a document of a grislier, long-gone New York, shot guerilla-style around the city, and the first US film to be selected to screen at Cannes.
Desperately Seeking Susan came to Seidelman after it had languished for a long time in development, with studios passing on the project because, as the producer Sarah Pillsbury said, “Only women and gay men liked it.” As if that wasn’t all the endorsement you need.
The film was a box office hit but I can see why there may have been concerns about its frankly bonkers premise. Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, a Jersey housewife married to a gormless hot tub salesman. Bored and miserable, she lives vicariously through the personal ads in the paper, specifically those addressed to an enigmatic drifter, Susan (Madonna, in her first leading film role). Roberta’s obsession with Susan leads Roberta to get hitting on the head, waking up with amnesia and being mistaken for Susan. Screwball antics ensue, involving a chintzy magic show bar, mobsters and a pair of stolen Nefertiti earrings.
At its core, the film traces a desire to upend your identity, locating a roadmap in others. My favourite moment is when Roberta follows Susan into a secondhand clothes shop and watches as she trades in her Pyramid-embroidered jacket for a pair of diamante-studded boots Roberta then buys the jacket. Slipping it on, she gets a temporary thrill from the residues of a more impulsive, unrestricted life.
The film immortalises early-career Madonna, shot when she was on the cusp of fame but still something of a New York club kid. Basically playing herself, she’s a cool, assured presence on screen: wandering around eating cheese puffs with gloves on, drying her armpits in a public bathroom, and dancing to Into the Groove at the club (shot at the legendary Danceteria, where her career took root).
Less-beloved but also wildly amusing is 1989’s She-Devil. The film was Seidelman’s third commercial flop (following on from the cyborg romance Making Mr Right and the Nora Ephron-penned mob comedy Cookie). Critics were unimpressed, taking aim at the movie’s cruel tone and claiming it missed the pungent satire of Fay Weldon’s novel, on which the film is loosely based.
But She-Devil is ripe for redemption. It remains a darkly funny revenge film that is shrewd on elder neglect, domestic labour and the desires of women.
The she-devil in question is Ruth (Rosanne Barr), a hapless housewife who discovers that her slimeball accountant husband is having an affair with his latest client, the “reigning royal highness of romance fiction” Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep). After a chaotic family dinner involving a roasted gerbil, Ruth resolves to ruin his life. On a reminder Post-it, she writes down his self-professed assets (“1. Home 2. Family 3. Career 4. Freedom”) and methodically obliterates each one.
The film’s unhinged, camp energy comes in large part from Streep’s Mary. The romance novelist lives in a gaudy Long Island mansion that puts Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace to shame. Her home is filled with endless satin, a pampered poodle and a muscly butler with a fondness for zebra print. She spends her days in the compound’s gardens, thrashing her manicured fingers on a pink keyboard, trying to come up with a juicy synonym for nipples (she settles on “love-button”).
As Ruth’s carnage rips apart Mary’s life, Streep’s performance morphs into something more akin to a washed-up, inebriated starlet. She throws herself around her lavish bedroom, face mask slapped on one side of her face, popping pills and screaming.
I’ve been drawn to these kinds of depictions of late – women going berserk in the confines of their home – which have served as a reprieve to the endless scroll of faultless, dull domestic life. A crisis calls for unhinged behaviour. Plus, they’re served as an important reminder: nothing is more spiritually restoring than an ungodly wail.
• Desperately Seeking Susan and She-Devil are streaming now on Stan
Source: The Guardian
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