Initially, the Mexican film “You’re Killing Me Susana” (“Me estás matando Susana”) seems like a fairly traditional romantic comedy—the lead couple suffers various self-inflicted wounds, even as the audience knows that they’re perfect for each other. But “Susana” reveals itself to be something much deeper: a romantic comedy free of the genre’s usual clichés, as well as an astute political statement about Mexican-American relations.
The film opens on Eligio (Gael Garcia Bernal; “Mozart in the Jungle”) frantically driving through city streets as if he’s on a mission. We wait to see what his final destination is, but it turns out that he’s not in a hurry to do anything in particular—he’s just driving home drunk. It’s the first indication of the self-destructive nature that will haunt him throughout the film.
Eligio is a fairly successful actor, best known for supporting parts in telenovelas and commercials, but he’s not an artist. That distinction belongs to his wife, Susana (Verónica Echegui), an unpublished writer. Sideways glances and stray sighs paint their marriage as a troubled union; Eligio is a womanizer and a drunk, and his and Susana’s artistic pursuits are in opposition.
After a day of playing a cowboy in a ridiculous getup on a telenovela (and making out with an eager makeup girl), Eligio returns home to find that Susana is gone and her cell phone has been left behind. He calls the police, thinking she’s been abducted, but most of her clothes are missing, suggesting a desertion instead. Eligio checks in at her work and makes the standard calls, but no one knows where Susana has gone. Then some internet sleuthing reveals her fate: Susana has won a grant to focus on her writing and is at a college in the American Midwest. Eligio buys a plane ticket and off he goes.
Writer and Director Roberto Sneider and co-writer Luis Cámara use the trip to the U.S. as an opportunity to pick apart the country’s immigration policies. Because he’s Mexican, Eligio receives extra scrutiny from an inquisitive customs agent. Since the duration of his trip hasn’t been determined, and he doesn’t even know Susana’s actual address (just the name of the university), Eligio is selected for additional questioning and searches. In a back room, he’s interrogated about why he’s carrying so much cash, and when the Customs and Border Protection agents don’t like his answer, they bring in a doctor to perform a cavity search. Of course, all of Eligio’s answers are perfectly reasonable and innocent, but they exist in an environment where CBP agents who are already suspicious of foreigners have nearly unlimited power to detain them. “You’re Killing Me Susana” was originally released in Mexico last year, prior to the American election, but the film’s political barbs feel razor sharp and timely.
Eligio’s American vacation is further hampered by anti-immigrant attitudes. He’s driven from the airport by a racist cab driver who compliments him on looking better than most Mexicans he knows. (One wonders how many Mexicans he’s ever met that far up in the Midwest.) From there on, the film focuses its political spite not on the U.S. government, but on the denizens of the Heartland most worried about undocumented immigrants (and least likely to be affected by them). When one of the townies welcomes Eligio to America, he quips that he was already there (after all, Mexico is still part of North America). It’s a verbal strike that recalls some of the wordplay of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, minus the purely anti-American intent.
When Eligio finally meets up with Susana, their initial shock devolves into a shouting match that stretches across the chilly campus. Susana, who’s been seeing a gargantuan, hirsute Polish poet, confronts Eligio about his myriad infidelities back in Mexico. She calls out his Mexican machismo, which he flaunts in front of unsuspecting Midwesterners. Eligio’s reactionary gender beliefs are contrasted with the quieter conservatism of the people who live in the small college town. His treatment of Susana and other women might not be that out of place, but his wild reactions are out of place among the buttoned up Americans.
The movie then abandons much of its political commentary to focus on Eligio and Susana’s new relationship. There’s a reconciliation of sorts, and we finally see what had kept the two together before Susana’s departure. But Eligio’s womanizing and need to control his wife threaten to destroy their fragile peace.
“You’re Killing Me Susana” avoids creating two boringly lovable characters who are meant to be together. Instead, Eligio and Susana are complex and messy people, each with their own problems that threaten their relationship. Like many couples, they don’t quite understand each other. When Eligio tells Susana he liked one of her stories but didn’t understand the ending, she asks how he could like something he didn’t get. “There are many things I like and don’t get.” He’s referring to Susana, but his admission that he doesn’t understand her is also the first step toward comprehending what drives her.
Bernal is an effortlessly charming actor, and he’s essential in making Eligio’s missteps and serial adultery seem forgivable. In a less-skilled actors hands, his outbursts at Susana might have seemed too sinister, even violent.
Not everything in “You’re Killing Me Susana” totally coheres: the political statements, though necessary, sometimes seem like they belong to a different film, rather than a romantic comedy. But Sneider’s movie is refreshingly ambitious and anchored by two solid lead performances. It’s a welcome departure from the warmed-over dreck that normally stands in for romance on screen.
Watch the trailer below: