Time to disavow another opinion; I was still at school when Desperately Seeking Susan came out, and the clips playing in rotation as promos for Madonna’s hit single Into the Groove made it look like a female Beverly Hills Cop. Susan Seidelman’s film would feature the pop princess getting into trouble with cops and criminals in New York City in a case of mistaken identity; laughs and thrills did not materialise.
Except Madonna wasn’t the main character, Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) was, a blatant bait and switch; I can still feel the rising waves of animosity in my local indie cinema as the deception became apparent. So, wait, this isn’t a showcase for Madonna or her music? Into the Groove plays over one scene, but bizarrely, it’s in a bar where Madonna seems to have selected it from a juke-box. So what I had been lured into was, in part, a clip-joint riff on Jacques Rivette’s meta-moden French fantasy 1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating, a harder sell to my teenage self perhaps. I didn’t manage to see Rivette’s film until many years later, and it’s a personal favourite; the magic scenes and the two female leads are the obvious connection between the two. Otherwise, I didn’t know quite what to make of Desperately Seeking Susan, an incredibly contrived comedy set-up resolved without resort to the 80’s era’s fall-backs; raunchy jokes and car chases.
And yet, circa 2020, Seidelman’s film comes up fresh as paint, not least because of great location work shown to great advantage on this MGM print. It’s also the mother lode for previously unknown stars. John Turturro, comic Stephen Wright, Will Patton, Laurie Metcalf, the late, great Mark Blum and more are all crammed into the densely populated sunlit NYC streets as Roberta stalks Susan, who she initially knows from random newspaper personal ads. After following Susan, buying her jacket from a thrift-shop vendor and finding a bus-station locker-key that leads to the possession of stolen Egyptian earrings, Roberta bangs her head and can’t remember who she is. Projectionist Aiden Quinn helps her until she bangs her head again and…
With such a convoluted story, one might expect the laughs might flow freely in a comedy so front-loaded with information; they don’t. This is clearly a sex-comedy of sorts, but with the racier scenes removed to get a PG-13 rating, it’s hard to know exactly what’s being alluded to. But what really does work is the portrayal of New York circa 1984, fresh, alternative, dangerous; like Susan, a force of nature, a rebellious persona that can’t be repressed. Roberta’s rejection of her hot-tub vending partner’s materialist lifestyle seemed against the grain at the time, but now seems charming and well-positioned. And this is a slick, bouncy, highly-individual film written, produced, directed by and starring women; sure, Madonna was the attraction, but Desperately Seeking Susan was some way ahead of the curve for those smart enough to get into the punky, feminist groove.