She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not…
As big a jerk any could be, and jealous like a good Mexican macho, enraged Eligio chases his partner Susana from Mexico City to Iowa in search of an explanation for her unexpected departure. There, he discovers that Susana is dating another man — taller, hairier, with a stronger voice, and who surely has it b…
“The macho ultimately wants to be told that he’s loved,” said director Roberto Sneider about Me estás matando Susana [You’re Killing Me Susana], a feminist comedy about machismo that highlights the cultural differences between Mexico and the United States.
Based on the 1982 book “Deserted Cities” by José Agustín, renowned author of the ‘La Onda’ literary movement, the film follows the charismatic and amusing character played by Gael García Bernal, a sort of Mexican Woody Allen, in his eagerness to recover beautiful Susana (Verónica Echegui).
“The novel is very imperfect in its writing style, on purpose. It feels rushed because the narration is very passionate,” Sneider said. “I wanted to do something similar. It felt to me that the way to achieve that natural and fresh tone was to allow improvisation and to have a little of that imperfection.”
This is Sneider’s third literary adaptation after Two Crimes (1994) and Tear This Heart Out (2008), based on books by Jorge Ibargüengoitia and Ángeles Mastretta respectively. Born in the Mexico City in 1962, Sneider co-produced Frida with Salma Hayek in 2002, and in 2015 he was executive producer of The Hours with You by Catalina Aguilar Mastretta.
During his visit to San Rafael at the Mill Valley Film Festival last fall, we talked with Sneider about the similarities and differences with the book, the protagonist couple and the memorable scene of the spanking (spoiler alert: skip the last questions if you do not want to know the end of the film).
The director will attend the premiere of his film on Friday, February 24 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Tickets: http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/roxcine-killing-susana-estas-matando-susana/?instance_id=
Your film premiered at the Guadalajara Film Festival, Mexico, as Deserted Cities. Why did you change the title?
The novel is called “Deserted Cities,” and the title of my film was always Deserted Cities for me. But the distributor made me realize that we were going to release the film around the same time as Desert, another film starring Gael. I was told that was not a good idea. And the distributor also suggested to have a title to make the audience understand that it is a movie about a relationship with sense of humor.
José Agustín is pretty well known writer in Mexico…
José Agustín wrote his first novel in 1964 at age 20, and became an icon for the generation to come. I read his books while being very young, fresh out of high school, close to their dates of publication.
How different is You’re Killing Me Susana from “Deserted Cities”?
To begin with, we moved it from the 1970s to the present, and there is a great cultural difference. And while the novel begins to tell the story from Susana’s point of view, we decided to start from the moment Eligio realizes that his partner has left, without getting her point of view until he arrives looking for her. They were important changes. And all the language, especially the language used in the relationship, is a bit different. And Eligio’s character, too. But the essential problems remain the same.
And is the humor also present in the book?
See, that is a curious thing because fans of Agustín have commented that they feel that the novel is more serious. I did take it very seriously when I read it, but I also laughed a lot. So I read it like a novel with a great sense of humor.
And does the United States also appear in the novel?
Yes, being a much more important character in the novel. The differences, not only cultural but of infrastructure as well, were much bigger at that time. For example, in Mexico there were no overpasses and you could only buy three types of cars, there was no American chewing gum… And when you came to the United States you saw diversity. José Agustín has fun with all that in the novel, but in the film it was left out because I wanted to focus on the relationship, especially on Eligio’s obsession.
How did you pick Gael García Bernal and Verónica Echegui to play the couple?
Eligio’s character is a real jerk, but an adorable little bastard as Agustín’s writes it. I said to myself, ‘for that you need an actor who has that kind of charisma and sense of humor,’ without betraying a really neat thing in the novel that I wanted to have in my film. And I thought Gael was perfect for that. He did not physically resemble the Eligio I imagined when I read the novel, but I said to myself, ‘there are more essential things in this character to be rescued.’ It was from the very beginning that I wanted Gael in the film.
Once Gael joined the project we started looking for Susana. We read with many, mostly Mexican, actresses. And in one of those talks with Gael, he said, ‘a long time ago I read in a casting with an actress and we had a very special chemistry, I thought was a very fine actress, she could do very well, why don’t we see Verónica Echegui?’ We immediately realized that there was a very special chemistry.
We thought that was very important, because the film is about this man trying to recover his woman and is passionate about her. It was important to see that this girl sets him on fire. And to Gael, because he is a charismatic type, because he is an attractive guy, this girl forgives him many things. He helps the audience understand why this woman, instead of trying to talk to him says to herself, ‘No, I’m leaving, I’m not talking to him or anything, bye.’
Eligio is a very Mexican macho man, while Susana, of Spanish origin, is perhaps more independent than the average Mexican woman. Two cultures clash in their relationship…
See, the novel does not show that because Susana is Mexican. And once we picked Verónica because of the chemistry between them, we said, ‘If Agustín sends Eligio to a culture different from his own [United States] where his behavior is out of place, it would be interesting to have his partner be of a different culture.’ So that way, his very Mexican behavior towards her is also more out of place than if it were towards a Mexican woman. We thought it reinforced this idea present in the novel.
Were dialogues improvised in the scenes with Gael and Verónica?
We really wanted the film to feel fresh. The novel is very imperfect in its writing style, on purpose. It feels rushed because the narration is very passionate. And I wanted to do something similar. It felt to me that the way to achieve that natural and fresh tone was to allow improvisation and to have a little of that imperfection. And during the editing we also did something along those same lines, we fragmented the moments with jump cuts. So after having taken that stylistic decision I told the actors, ‘improvise that I’ll cut out afterwards.’
Is your film’s audience more men or women?
I swore it was a film for men, because it has a male point of view. But it does also have what you may call a feminist view, very present in the novel. That of a strong woman who says ‘No, you can be charming, you can be whatever you want, but you’re not getting away with that type of attitude.’ It has become more of a film for women who enjoy watching this passionate man suffer as a result of his behavior.
[SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading here if you do not want to know about the ending]
Is there spanking in the novel at the end too?
Yes! I loved that about the novel. I think it’s brilliant. An essentially feminist novel ends with a spanking. And you say, it takes balls doesn’t it? I liked it, because it’s a loving thing. It’s not about submission or violence but, ‘I am still a man and you are still a woman, and you have behaved badly with me too, and you have to tell me that you love me.’ Funny, isn’t it? The macho ultimately wants to be told that he’s loved. It is a matter of insecurity that the film talks about.
Isn’t it? These macho attitudes that constitute jealousy come from a point of absolute insecurity. But this macho is man enough to admit it and finally say, ‘what I want is this.’ So yes, it is like that in the novel, but see, the difference is that she returns pregnant in the novel.
From another man?
She says the child is his, and he goes ‘and how do I know that…’ I loved that discussion, he goes ‘now you’re going to tell me how platonic your relationship with the Pole was.’ It’s very funny. And he says, ‘Well, if it comes out tall and hairy, I’ll love the baby as if it were mine.’
I wanted to keep that part, but it seemed very hard for me to have a pregnant woman being spanked, and to leave the doubt in the audience as to whether she came back because she is pregnant with him and not because she wanted to return with him. It was torturous at the time of writing. In the end I decided, ‘no, she is not pregnant,’ so that we clearly understand that she returns because she loves him, because in the same way he suffered and grew, so did she. And ‘yes, have him give her some spanking.’ But I could not have my character spank a pregnant woman, you know what I mean?
(This interview was originally published in El Tecolote newspaper in a shorter version)