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Roberta from “Desperately Seeking Susan” Film Essay

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Updated: Jul 3rd, 2021

Susan Seidelman’s movie Desperately Seeking Susan is a story of a housewife Roberta, who desperately desires to have a more adventurous life. She sees an advertisement in a newspaper, in which a man sets up a meeting with a woman named Susan, and Roberta decides to follow the couple. Throughout this movie, Roberta undergoes a transformation, which changes her personality traits and attitudes towards life, making her more confident. This paper aims to outline how Roberta’s character is created through mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound, and editing.

Roberta is one of the central characters in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, and her cinematographic portrayal is crucial for the plot of this firm. In many scenes, the medium shots are used, showing both a character’s emotions and their clothes. Through mise-en-scene, Roberta is depicted as a typical housewife with an evident interest in adventure. When she is first introduced at the beginning of Desperately Seeking Susan, she is in a beauty salon getting a hair cut.

The camera uses two straight angles, depicting her from the back when Roberta’s face is seen in the mirror and from the front. The medium close-up shot allows seeing her emotions as she reads a newspaper advertisement. The set up of a salon and the sequence of shots where different procedures such as hair waxing, nail painting, and swiping the hair off the floor depict regular activities for a housewife similar to Roberta. An important element is a sequence of several shots where the camera wheeled on a cart depicts several women getting their procedures in this salon. This provides an understanding that Roberta is bored with her life as a housewife and that she is intrigued by an advertisement she sees.

The colors and the props in the scenes where Roberta is first introduced help understand her character better. At the beginning of Desperately Seeking Susan, she is seen in a beauty salon, surrounded by pink and beige walls and decor of the scene’s set up. The fact that the dominant colors in this scene are pink and peach suggests the feminine nature of Roberta’s character. This is also reflected in the pink dress that she wears. The close-up shots in this scene allow seeing her emotions when she discusses the newspaper advertisement with a manager. Roberta appears to be bored at first, but then the shot shows her excitement and admiration when she discusses Susan’s adventures.

The jacket that Roberta and Susan wear are an integral part of the mise-en-scene because it helps connect the two characters visually and show their relationship. In the scene where the former is in the park looking for Susan, she is seen wearing the jacket and her pink clothes. This shows that some changes in her character as she becomes confident. The long shots are used, and the camera moves from side to side following Roberta’s attempts to walk away from Jim. Next, another long shot is used when Roberta hits her head, and the focus on the details, such as a close-up shot of her bag falling, suggests that she will have difficulty recovering her identity.

The contrast to Roberta’s look is the appearance and colors used in scenes where Susan appears. She usually wears black, adding accessories such as a black headband. In the scenes following Roberta’s memory loss, she begins wearing clothes that are predominantly back, such as a biker jacket. Since Roberta does not remember who she is, she changes her appearance, which displays some changes in her character as well.

In the scene where Roberta returns home after following Susan, she begins to cook wearing a black jacket, which belonged to Jimmy Hendricks. The contracts between her clothes and that of her husband, wearing a light pink blazer is evident in this scene. The camera films both characters using two medium shots, depicting Roberta and her husband from waist up. The set of the kitchen’s interior also helps depict the issue that Roberta is struggling with.

Since the camera is using a deep focus, the background behind the characters is seen. The design of the interior is clean and minimalistic, with the clear geometry of the kitchen cabinets. Next, as the camera follows her husband exiting the room, Roberta is seen taking off the jacket and wearing an all-white outfit. The cinematographic elements of color used in this scene depict the development of Roberta’s character, showing her desire for adventure outside her home.

Therefore, throughout this movie, one can see that the character’s clothes are a critical element of the mise-en-scene. When Roberta follows Susan as the latter walks through clothing shops, her insecurity and interest are supported by the camera angles. An exciting element of this scene is that Susan decides to buy a pair of sparkling black boots, which corresponds to her appearance and suits her rebellious character. The close-up shot of her face helps understand the interest she has for this item. The editing of this scene provides different shots of Susan and Roberta, as the latter pretends to be interested in clothes while following Susan.

The contrast to this is a set up of the thrift shop, which is filled with colorful items. The place appears messy and unorganized, which is especially evident when a close-up shot of Roberta dropping a bright orange dress appears. Interestingly, the camera mostly focuses on medium and medium close up shots of Roberta in this scene, depicting the interest she has in Susan’s life.

When Susan returns to the thrift shop, her appearance contrasts with the setup and interior of the place. The shallow focus used here does not allow to see all the elements of the decor and the items. However, there is a contrast between the color and the messiness of the shop and Roberta’s white outfit. When she tries on the jacket, the straight angle of the camera allows seeing her reaction. She feels confident when she spins around before the camera to see herself in the mirror.

In the next scene, where Roberta as Susan talks to Dez, the music plays a vital role in setting up the mise-en-scene. The sounds of a saxophone suggest a disappointment that the two characters feel because both of them expected each other to be different. The editing of this scene presents Roberta and Dez, with shots of a man playing the saxophone in his apartment. As the music becomes more romantic, the two characters become closer to each other. At this point, Roberta thinks she is Susan and tries to recall some memories that would help her. The close-up shot of her kiss with Dez is shown. They sit on the rooftop, and the set up of the scene cannot be seen because it is nighttime.

The sounds used in this movie, more specifically, the soundtrack helps portray the plot more accurately in many scenes, as it supports the narrative. In the beginning, the Shoop Shoop Song plays, which is about a woman wondering if she is loved. This supports Roberta’s narrative because the relationship she has with her husband is complicated and they have disagreements, as is seen in the kitchen scene discussed above.

In the final scenes of this movie, Roberta has entirely changes, which is seen in her clothes and the emotions she expresses. She comes up to Dez and re-introduces herself as Roberta and not Susan. In the scene, the color palette of the setup and character’s clothes is mostly dark, which contrasts with the colors used to decorate Susan’s house scene at the beginning of this movie and the clothes she used to wear. At the beginning of the scene, a scene from another movie is edited in, since this scene is in a movie theatre. Next, the low camera angle shows Dez looking at the cinema screen. The camera smoothly moves to the side as Roberta enters the scene.

Overall, in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan, Roberta undergoes a transformation from a housewife bored with her life to a woman who undergoes several adventures. The cinematography elements that help develop Roberta’s character include the scenes’ set up, clothes of the characters, the colors, camera angles, and the music. Most evidently, the color scheme of Roberta’s clothes throughout the movie changes as her personality transforms.

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"Roberta from "Desperately Seeking Susan" Film." IvyPanda, 3 July 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/roberta-from-desperately-seeking-susan-film/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Roberta from "Desperately Seeking Susan" Film." July 3, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/roberta-from-desperately-seeking-susan-film/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Roberta from "Desperately Seeking Susan" Film'. 3 July.

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