Luca Guadagnino’s homage to Suspiria was one of the most divisive films of 2018. I mentioned in my review a few months ago that I wasn’t sure if I even liked the new Suspiria, but it was a movie that I couldn’t just dismiss. That sentiment holds even now as the film gets released on VOD, with a DVD/Blu-ray release at the end of the month. Suspiria is one of the movies I haven’t stopped thinking about, and I sense my appreciation and admiration for it will grow with subsequent watches. I’m still not sure if I’ll wind up loving it, but it will remain an object of fascination; I am moved, but by what remains somewhat unknown.
Enigmatic films have such an obsessive allure. One might be tempted to consider them puzzles that must be solved, but that’s reductive; it suggests that the work loses its appeal once it’s been decoded. A movie like Suspiria seems like it was made to resist total explication.
I say that because this deep analysis of Suspiria can’t possibly answer all of the questions surrounding the film, but it might point toward some theoretical/critical frameworks to better appreciate the movie’s irresolvable strangeness. MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SUSPIRIA BELOW
Remake as Reinvention
“Turn and face the strange / Ch-ch-changes / There’s gonna have to be a different man” —David Bowie, “Changes”
The first and most obvious note is that the new Suspiria is a reimagining of the Dario Argento original rather than a straight remake. It deserves comparison to other horror reimaginings like John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Each of those films reconfigured their source material to express the interests of their filmmakers while commenting on the era in which they were made. Suspiria, interestingly, merges the political anxieties of 1977 Germany with contemporary cultural concerns about gender, the patriarchy, and matriarchal forces/power structures. The remake could have gone a much different direction. When David Gordon Green was originally attached to the project, he had envisioned something that was faithful to the original yet more operatic in terms of its approach. By comparison, Guadagnino’s film might be considered more like a modern dance performance than opera. (This does make me wonder if anyone would try to redo Argento’s 1991 film Opera, which is arguably his last great movie.)
The MO behind the Suspiria remake seems to be reconsideration, inversion, and reconfiguration. Argento’s film was a subconscious fever dream fairy tale, overflowing with bright colors, framed with an angular expressionistic flair. It was a set piece showcase high on spectacle and low on subtext, like many great Italian horror films. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich took the original film apart and imbued their story with loads of psychoanalytic subtext and meditations on motherhood and the feminine. The colors in the new Suspiria are often washed out; the drab first shots of the film ground the story in lived history and political reality rather than a dark storybook. It’s a look inspired by the painter Balthus and filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom recreating the camera movements of the late 1970s.
Susie in the original Suspiria (played by Jessica Harper) is a traditional horror movie final girl/fairy tale heroine: an innocent young woman whose purity survives the evils around her. Susie in the new version of the film (played by Dakota Johnson) is a young woman whose maturation and self-expression results in womanhood (sexual maturity and a sense of self) as as well as motherhood (occult power over life and death, organizational leadership). Even the witches play a different role in each film. In Argento’s movie, the witches are evil and meant to be vanquished. Guadagnino turns the coven into a fount of power hidden away from the world. These witches can do evil, but they aren’t necessarily evil. By the end, obliterating the old leadership suggests a potential for a new woman in power to affect change for the better; not necessarily good, but possibly less self-serving and outright evil.
Aja Romano’s analysis for Vox notes that Guadagnino’s use of color simultaneously subverts the vibrant, expressive tableaux of Argento’s original film while imbuing the presence of color with even greater symbolic and narrative significance. In the new movie, Guadagnino allows the color red to gradually bleed into the movie as Susie rises in prominence within the school, later bathing the whole screen in red as she claims power in a climactic, dance-like ceremony. The reimagined use of red acknowledges and inverts the original film, takes on its own meaning with regard to occult power in the new film, suggests the patriarchal fears in a woman’s sexual maturity and power (i.e., menstruation; a key trope in many horror movies), and alludes to the political subtext regarding the violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The color red, like so many elements of the new Suspiria, plays many roles.
There are numerous other twists to the material in the original Suspiria. Udo Kier and Rudolf Schündler’s characters seem to be merged and deepened in the form of Dr. Josef Klemperer (played by Tilda Swinton as Lutz Ebersdorf; more on that in a bit). Rather than providing historical exposition like his predecessors, Dr. Klemperer is a witness of history and a key thematic component to the film. The uncanny geometry of the windows and floor tiles in the original film seem reticulated in the clandestine pentacle taped across the floor as the students of the Tanz dance company perform “Volk.” The menacing, raspy snore of Helena Markos in the Argento’s film is transferred into the lungs of Susie’s Mennonite mother in the 2018 movie. Even the Angel of Death—implied by a disappearing bird of prey statue that swoops down on a blind man in an empty plaza—shows up in the new Suspiria, a mute shadowy demon that blows up the followers of Helena Markos at the behest of Susie, the true Mother Suspiriorum.
This “spot the reference to the original” game can get out of hand, however. In the original Suspiria, Argento left a subliminal witch-shape in a spatter of blood on the floor following the first set of kills. It’s something I wouldn’t notice unless it was pointed out to me. Following the death of Olga in the new Suspiria’s first brutal set piece, there’s a blood blot on the floor as the witches drag the crumpled dancer’s body away. I gazed intently at the dark Rorschach test and swore I saw the implication of a witch on a broom, an overt nod to the original film. I also acknowledge that if you gaze too long at anything, the human mind will find a way to impose a pattern and make meaning, twisting it, reshaping it, warping it. Maybe blood is just blood (unless).
Pas de Deux of Mirrors, Doubles, and Shadows
“This is a waltz thinking about our bodies / What they mean for our salvation” —Thom Yorke, “Suspirium”
The above section is essentially one way to think of the new Suspiria as a type of reflection, double, and shadow of the original film. That makes sense since Guadagnino and Kajganich have filled their movie with countless doubles and refractions, creating a formal dance between multiple opposing and/or complementary ideas. Let’s first consider the cast and crew. The movie’s cast is comprised almost entirely of women; Tilda Swinton even plays the primary male character in the movie under a heap of prosthetics. The only other men in Suspiria are bits players—a few Mennonites back in Ohio, two detectives who are hypnotized and have their manhood mocked by witches, passing extras. Yet behind the camera, many of the primary creative forces are male. In addition to Guadagnino, Kajganich, and Mukdeeprom, you have editor Walter Fasano, music by Thom Yorke, and dance choreography by Damien Jalet (picked because Guadagnino was impressed by his dance piece “Les Medusées,” which was, fittingly, inspired by Argento’s Suspiria). The creative women behind the camera included production designer Inbal Weinberg, art designer Monica Sallustio (who worked with Merlin Ortner), set decorators Christin Busse and Merissa Lombardo, and costume designer Giulia Piersanti.
This split between male and female, two different sensibilities with a shared creative aim, synthesizes in this version of Suspira. The fact such a split exists calls attention to itself; Emily Yoshida noted the disjunction in the opening of her review for Vulture. I found myself thinking of the Carl Jung notion of anima (unconscious feminine side of a man) and animus (unconscious masculine side of a woman), and how that may apply to the creative decisions. (Then again, I wonder how that mode of analysis accounts for non-binary identity and gender fluidity. A dance for another time.) Perhaps this anima/animus divide in front of and behind the camera also mirrors the creative relationship between Dario Argento and partner Daria Nicolodi. The duo co-wrote and collaborated on the seminal movies in Argento’s filmography, and some have suggested that his work was never as good once that relationship/collaboration ended. Guadagnino remarked in an interview with MUBI that Nicolodi was “clearly the poetic personality in that relationship.”
Moving back to the film itself, Tilda Swinton plays three roles in Suspiria of psychoanalytic importance. As Britt Hayes notes in her extensive psychoanalytic breakdown of the film, the three Tildas correspond to Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and super-ego: Helena Markos as the primal, hidden figure seeking gratification; Madame Blanc as the mediating figure between the imperatives of the appetite and the prevailing cultural norms; and Dr. Josef Klemperer as the elderly traditionalist who upholds the norms of a past era. The fact a single actress portrays each part offers a fascinating idea of how we fracture ourselves in numerous ways and yet remain whole in some fashion. We notice an additional split based on where the Berlin Wall is located relative to the Tanz Dance Academy. Behold, a big concrete metaphor. The coven of witches operates hidden in plain sight, cloistered into its own small world that functions almost independently from the rest of Germany. Yet the political upheavals of Germany in 1977 seem to mirror the generational and ideological power struggles within the dance academy. The micro and macro are different spheres to consider, but they share a number of similarities.
There’s also a fascinating interplay regarding Susie and the way she mirrors, reflects, and replaces certain figures in the film. Susie is a replacement for/reflection of Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) given her dancing abilities and the potential she presents to the witches at the dance academy. While Susie embraces the coven, Patricia wants out of it, and even reveals the horror to a dismissive Dr. Klemperer. At a meta-level, it’s interesting that Susie is a young woman who realizes her innate powers through sexual maturation, and that Moretz played the title character in the 2013 remake of Carrie, which concerns a young woman who unlocks telekinetic and telepathic potential once she starts menstruating. Susie is also a replacement for Olga (Elena Fokina), dancing her part in the school, transforming Olga (literally and gruesomely) in the process. Susie becomes a reflection and a shadow of Sara (Mia Goth); Sara is also a kind of mirrored replacement for Patricia (i.e., as she learns more of the truth, Sara’s fear moves her to meet with Dr. Klemperer). Sara thinks of Susie as a sister, but as Susie is seduced by Madame Blanc, Susie becomes less of a sister and more like one of them. Susie may also be seen as a replacement of Madame Blanc, acting as the new ego of the Tanz school as Mother Suspiriorum.
Jacques Lacan gets namechecked in this reimagined Suspiria, maybe as a nod to the grad school cognoscenti. It makes sense given how Lacan carried psychoanalysis further into the 20th century (with the Lacan baton picked up and carried by Slavoj Zizek, among others, into the 21st century). Lacan’s own psychoanalytic thought is built around mirrors, particularly the moment a child sees and recognizes their own reflection as a whole rather than fragmentary. This mirror stage leads to self-alienation, with the subject interpreting the mirror image (both the self and an other) as something to love and to loathe simultaneously. Yet I am extremely ignorant regarding Lacan and have trouble understanding his ideas; even my grasp of the mirror stage seems, fittingly, fragmentary and uncoordinated. One day I hope I can return to Suspiria having a better grasp of Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Dr. Klemperer seems a little dismissive of Lacan in Suspiria, but that could be by design. In an August 2018 interview with Variety, Guadagnino said the following about Swinton’s stunt casting as a fictional male actor: “I wanted this movie to be a deeply female film, to contradict Lacan’s saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a woman,’ because the woman is a creation of the desire of man. I wanted to say the opposite: there’s no such a thing as a man.” Yet the attempted negation seems to call attention to the gender split in front of the camera and behind the camera, which is part of the dialogue and dance of divisions in the movie; a little bit pas de deux, a little bit tête-à-tête. I should also note given all the talk of doubles, reflections, and shadows that one of the early essential books in English that seriously examined the works of Argento was Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds.
Witchcraft, Womanhood, Matrons, and Goddesses
“Not about to see your light / But if you want to find hell with me / I can show you what it’s like / Till you’re bleeding” —Glenn Danzig, “Mother”
I mentioned above that the new Suspiria’s views on witchcraft are different than the original Suspiria’s views on the matter. The dark, pagan witches must be destroyed by girlish innocence in Argento’s film. It’s a familiar archetype in so many fairy tales, which is linked to a long tradition of patriarchal oppression. The demonization of women as witches is rooted in masculine fears of female sexuality and power. As soon as the patriarchy notices women claiming independence, displaying agency, organizing, or engaging in potentially subversive activity, the dominant culture creates stories to chastise these kinds of behaviors, punish those who do not conform to the prevailing norms, and reassert control over the culture. Fiction, superstition, and symbols that become enfolded into the traditions of a culture can be valuable (and terrible) weapons against rebellion. The surviving and influential narratives of a culture can reveal deeply engrained misogyny, racism, and bigotry in the beliefs of the people.
This isn’t to say that the original Suspiria is misogynistic (I don’t think it is), but it’s not surprising that Argento’s work has been accused of misogyny given the female body count in his filmography. His movies are packed with lurid violence against women. Anne Billson, writing in The Guardian about women terrorized in horror movies, brought up the following squirmy Argento quotation: “If they have a good face or figure I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” It doesn’t help that Argento himself often donned the black gloves of the killers in his movies; the murderous hands seen on screen are often his.
When Susie is accepted into the Tanz Academy, she is provided with free room and board. The staff have made sure that all women in the academy have financial autonomy, giving them the space to create freely. This freedom is a matriarchal power structure created after World War II. Sara, giving a thematic history lesson, tells Susie that the Third Reich just wanted the women of Germany to shut off their minds and keep their uteruses open. In fact, Nazis gave women a medal known as the Mother’s Cross of Honour if they bore children for the sake of building the Reich. The German Autumn, which is the historical backdrop of Suspiria, was in part about a younger generation’s reckoning for the older generation’s culpability during the atrocities of World War II. But Tanz is different and walled away from all of that. It’s a space for women alone, where the women are in charge, and they do not have to rely on men to provide for them.
But even women are not free from abuses and misuses of power.
In the opening credits of Suspiria, we’re given a key epigraph regarding motherhood in the form of folksy needle point: “A Mother is she who can take the place of all others, but whose place no one else can take.” The quotation is attributed to Cardinal Gaspard Mermillod, and offers an interesting way to consider the relationships between the women in the coven of witches. The teachers and older women are the matrons in power at the school, and even though they raise and nurture their students like children, they are also engaged in a brutal cannibalization of their young charges. Susie is admired because of her dancing and innate potential, but she is desired by Helena Markos as a vessel for immortality. Even though the academy wants to provide their students with autonomy, they are captives in the school. Their skills can be given or stripped, like the way Madame Blanc steals one dancer’s leaping ability and gives it to Susie, her favorite pupil. (The giving and taking of powers is something Patricia alludes to at the beginning of the film.)
This idea of a mother cannibalizing its young suggests generational resentments, and an idea of an older generation reminding youth of its place. This generational divide may also be a version of the Electra complex, Jung’s female equivalent for Freud’s Oedipus complex in which children are in competition with their same-sex parent for the affection of the opposite-sex parent. Since there are no father figures in the school, the notion of power (occult, political, organizational) will suffice as a father surrogate. Yet there’s also something so primal about this devouring of a younger person, and it reminded me of how animal mothers in the wild sometimes cannibalize their own young. If a pup is sick or a mother cannot find any other food, the baby may be consumed to nourish the mother. We even get a sense of that in the way the students provide hair and urine samples. It plays into the need for magic components for spells as well as the sense that the bodies of these young women are what feeds the school and keeps it alive. As I’ll note in part two of this analysis, the movement of these women’s bodies are essential for spellcasting.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Guadagnino mentioned that he was interested by the idea of “the Terrible Mother” like the Hindu goddess Kali. Erich Neumann, a student of Jung, developed a schema of mother goddesses in his book The Great Mother. The six representatives of this schema were taken from various world religions and embodied different cultural values. At the top is the Virgin Mary, a figure of spiritual transformation, while Kali represents death and extinction. Neumann places witches at the opposite end of the schema to Mary, and says that witches represent negative change. Yet Susie’s transformation from young ingenue to the matron goddess seems to cover various roles in the schema, combining, upending, and subverting Neumann’s rigid structure. Or to put it another way, remembering our needle point, Susie takes the place of all mothers in the schema, but no one mother in the schema alone can replace Susie.
We return to the big difference between the Suspirias. Jessica-Harper-Susie destroys and escapes the coven into a cleansing rain, fleeing the witches; Dakota-Johnson-Susie ascends in rank among the witches, a student surpassing her teachers and realizing her own innate transformative power before taking control of the school and ushering in a new era. It makes me wonder if the new Susie subconsciously knew all along that she was in fact Mother Suspiriorum, or if this was unlocked as part of her self-discovery and the transformative nature of dance. Before her tryout for the school, Susie scratches at her sternum nervously. In the climax of the film when she asserts herself at the bloody sabbath, she peels the skin away from her chest to reveal a bleeding vaginal opening. It’s an image that looks like a vulgarization of the glowing heart of the Virgin Mary. (Much earlier in the film, notice how Madame Blanc first imbues Susie with power by touching the head, the hands, and the feet—a bastardized stigmata.) Susie was a repressed girl from Ohio, and now she is a woman—a female artist, a goddess—in Berlin. “I am She,” Susie says as part of her apotheosis.
This transformation is interestingly set-up through Susie’s symbolic acts of cannibalization. She replaces Patricia as the favored student, she mangles Olga through dance, she disavows Sara, and she’s given another student’s leaping ability. And yet when she sees the remnants of Patricia, Olga, and Sara at the red sabbath, she grants them the reprieve of death rather than cannibalizing them further. It is not what the Mother wants anymore, it is what her children want that matters. Susie even seems to magically spare the partially decapitated Madame Blanc; the Mother Suspiriorum has protected her surrogate mother who was also her art mother. It’s a new kind of motherhood built from a synthesis of many different, opposing, and parallel parts. I wonder if this synthesis was the point.
The transition Susie makes from student to matron becomes most pronounced in the Sixth Act of the film, which is aptly titled ”Suspiriorum.“ Notice how differently she’s dressed. She no longer looks like a girl or a student. No sweats, no plain clothing that hides her figure and body. Now she wears a gown and blouse like her teachers. She seems to have matured and carries herself more like the matrons in power. The student has become the master in appearance, a precursor to the Mother taking her rightful place as the head of the school. There is also a detail I did not catch initially: Susie is now wearing black gloves. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, like the Rorschach blood on the floor, but Susie wears the black gloves of an Italian horror movie killer. She confessed to Madame Blanc that she wanted to become the hands of the company, and now her hands are Dario Argento’s.