Release Date – TBC, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 37 minutes, Director – Sébastien Lifshitz
The story of the Casa Susanna, a safe haven away from the rest of society in the late ’50s where people could go to express their gender identity and sexuality.
There’s something of a wistful nature to Casa Susanna’s reflection of the late-50s and early-60s. It comes across in the cinematography of present day scenes where figures who found safety within the small walls of the escape haven re-meet to reminisce and discuss the effect of the titular building. While now slightly washed of colour and surrounded by overgrown grass we see plenty of colour and vibrancy in the images of the past. It’s as if it’s still present for the aging figures we hear from throughout the film.
The Casa Susanna was a place in the Catskills where people were allowed to express themselves and explore their gender identity and sexuality with no judgement. Men would come for a weekend of safety away from the judgement of the outside. Whether gay, transgender or transvestite there was a clear openness and acceptance from all others in the small spaces. The joint effect, and indeed individual response to cross-dressing is referred at one point as an “almost out of body experience. It was so powerful”. We see and hear a number of personal stories with emotional tinges throughout, adding to the overall wistful feel. All helping to push a feeling of celebration and freedom which must have been present within the walls of the central building.
It’s as the film slightly drifts away to the outside world where things become slightly more familiar. Not so much in the responses to certain figures’ sexualities and identities but more the general perception of LGBT people in society at the time, particularly in the cities. It’s around this point where in general the film moves away from focusing on the Casa Susanna as a whole and more on the effects that it had. There’s still interest in such elements, particularly with the hints of celebration which are still present, however there is a feeling of something a step away from the initial focus – due to the bridge in-between – meaning that there’s perhaps not as much engagement as there was beforehand.
Therefore things begin to feel somewhat lengthy – even at only 97 minutes. While not by too much there is the feeling that things could be somewhat cut down, or even put into a short documentary about the freedom of expression provided, with some of the effects. However, for what is present here there’s enough to like and engage with, particularly when it comes to the way in which the film and its participants look back at what were for them the good old days. Yet good old days which continued and allowed them to progress – “it wasn’t that the urge was increasing, but that time was passing” is a key phrase about identity which especially strikes within the film’s themes and surroundings. It’s these elements which bring about the most interest and engagement and allow for the true effect of the Casa Susanna to come through just that bit more.
While it might feel slightly lengthy as it moves away from the titular haven itself Casa Susanna still has plenty of wistfulness to help move it along and engage the viewer in its story of identity celebration.