• Festivals

TIFF 2022: Documentary “Casa Susanna” Affirms Closeted Identities from Bygone Era

The human need for social connection and an acceptance of basic personal expression is universal. When societies make certain groups feel unwelcome or unsafe in expressing themselves — or, indeed, simply existing — people will eventually create spaces that affirm their identity.

The lasting power of one of these venerated refuges is explored in the nonfiction film Casa Susanna, about a popular weekend and summer destination in the rural Catskills, New York. During the straitlaced 1950s and ’60s, transgender women and cross-dressing men found shelter there. A North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, fresh off its bow in the Giornate degli Autori section in Venice, director Sébastien Lifshitz’s absorbing movie exists in a thin stratosphere of melancholic validation, its delicate reflections plumbed for quiet heartbreak.

Operated by a host who alternated between the names of Susanna and Tito (depending on which gender she/he was dressing as), the large, Victorian-style house which lends the film its title served as a bed-and-breakfast hot spot for the cross-dressing community in the American Northeast. At the time, homosexuality was criminalized within the United States, and transgenderism and cross-dressing were even further marginalized. Casa Susanna provided a safe place for many individuals to express their true selves and live for a few days as they had always dreamed — dressed as women, without the fear of being attacked or incarcerated.


News of the house spread by word-of-mouth, especially through Virginia Prince’s influential magazine, “Transvestia.”  In the summertime, Casa Susanna became a bona fide colony. Every Saturday night brought a female impersonation contest. The house’s history remained not widely known until fairly recently when overdue shared stories finally inspired both a book of vintage photographs and a fictionalized 2014 stage play by Harvey Fierstein.

French-born Lifshitz has a lauded filmography steeped in LGBTQ+ stories, on both the narrative and nonfiction side. He is a two-time winner, for 2004’s Wild Side and 2013’s Bambi, of the Teddy Award, which is chosen annually by an independent committee at the Berlin International Film Festival to celebrate the best movies with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender themes.

His other credits include The Crossing, The Invisibles, The Lives of Thérèse, and Adolescents, which picked up three César Awards. His most recent documentary, Little Girl, about a seven-year-old transgender child living in a small town, played to acclaim at the Berlinale in 2020 and received distribution worldwide.

Casa Susanna slots comfortably within this canon. It is also interesting how it tells a distinctly American story through the lens of an outsider. Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Paul Guillaume, the film artfully stitches together past and present. The manner in which Lifshitz uses archival footage and present-day interviews with former visitors (as well as some of their younger relatives) helps further frame Casa Susanna as a portrait of a time-spanning salve. The house, for most who visited, wasn’t merely a way station. The value and power of that space remain intense so many decades later.

The movie sometimes rubs up against the limits of vocabulary that doesn’t express a modern breadth of identity. Non-binary wasn’t a widely accepted concept at the time. While many visitors eventually transitioned, some did not, and/or viewed their behavior differently.

This can sometimes feed a sense of halting confusion, depending on how parties choose to self-identify, or even describe others. Still, Casa Susanna is a thoughtful work that honors its subjects and the complexity of the compromised lives that they were, unfortunately, forced to live.