You’re Killing Me Susana is a dark romantic comedy based on the book Ciudades Desiertas by Jose Augustin. The movie follows the turbulent relationship between intellectual writer Susana (Verónica Echegui), and Eligio (Gael García Bernal), her loving but controlling actor husband. Our first glimpse of their relationship is Eligio coming home drunk late at night after we see him flirting with other women. The first fifteen minutes of the movie continue on this way until Eligio realizes that his wife has left. This already sets up the uneven power dynamic and emotional exchange of their relationship. It made sense story-wise and thematically that Susana had very few lines as Eligio was very selfish in their relationship.
Watching Eligio’s journey from Mexico to small town Americana is one of the more captivating parts of the movie. The visual contrast between the lively vibrant streets of Mexico and the overcast gray landscape of Iowa perfectly illustrate Eligio’s drastic re-orientation. The film is subversive in that the relationship between Mexico and the United States parallels this power dynamic between Eligio and his wife. Whereas back home in Mexico Eligio’s status as male allowed him to do as pleased, immediately upon entering the US, Eligio’s movement and autonomy are restricted. Indeed before he is even allowed to enter the country he is subjected to a cavity search, the ultimate threat to a traditional sense of masculinity.
The movie of course ends with him spanking his wife. Thus he in a sense “reclaims” his masculinity. There is also a very intimate relationship between Eligio’s performed hyper-masculinity and whiteness in the United States. It’s under siege throughout the entire movie, whether it be by the white woman in Susana’s class who teaches him how to shoot a gun properly, or being chased down by the police for not paying cab fare or the final insult when Eligio catches his wife having sex with a Polish man.
It’s tempting to view Eligio as nothing more than an overly controlling and paternalistic figure. But his position in many ways parallels the US and it’s relationship to foreigners and people of color. Eligio is most interested in Susana when she conforms to his idea of what a good woman and a good wife should do. He appreciates her talent as a writer but in many ways brushes that aside in favor of her appearance. Eligio upon entering the United States is immediately exotified and sought after mainly for his perceived attractiveness and fitting the idea of what a Mexican “should” be. And while Eligio is bumbling he has a somewhat misled sense of superiority and haughtiness, which looks comedic in the face of his many ineptitude.
Eligio manages to shed his toxic masculinity for the most part when he returns home to Mexico. Eventually Susana comes back to Eligio and they are a couple again. But only after Eligio spanks her into saying she loves him. The movie ends with them smiling after having more or less the same kind of argument they always have. It’s implied that they will get back together and possibly fall apart the way they did before. The hanging ending invites the viewer themselves to ask “is it all worth it?” without ever forcing an answer on anybody.