Welcome back to the second and final part of this in-depth look at Luca Guadagnino’s homage/remake of Suspiria. It was one of the most divisive horror movies of 2018, and while I admire the film, I’m still not sure if I necessarily love it. It’s a point of obsession rather than an object I’m devoted to, but maybe that’s what makes it such a fascinating film. As I mentioned in the first part of this Suspiria analysis, this is a movie I cannot simply dismiss.
In that first part of this Suspiria analysis, I covered differences between the source material and the reimagining, the various doubles and shadows that appear throughout the film, and the use of witchcraft and matronly goddess symbols as a way to undermine rigid patriarchal power structures. These initial observations will continue to play heavily in this second part of the analysis, so be sure to read the first half if you haven’t already.
With all that in mind, let’s dance once more to that eerie, mournful Thom Yorke music. MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SUSPIRIA BELOW
Dance as a Magical Rite
“Half psychotic, sick, hypnotic / Got my blueprint, it’s symphonic” —Lady Gaga, “Just Dance”
While dance was a pretext for the plot in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, dance becomes a source of strength in the new Suspiria, and just another way that its multitude of ideas can be refracted. Dance is a kind of magic, and also an expression of maturity, mastery, and sexuality. In an interview with Vice’s Garage, Guadagnino told screenwriter David Kajganich explicitly, “I would like dance to be central in the film, to be the secret language of the witches and the expression of their power.” In the same interview, Kajganich noted that it made sense from a practical standpoint. If witches want to cast spells and wield power without anyone realizing it, somatic magic through dance can be done in public and no one would be the wiser. The public recital is also a private rite. Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) even likens the movement of the body to a kind of language, shapes in the air like words forming sentences, poems, and prayers. “Spells?” Susie asks as she completes Madame Blanc’s implicit final thought.
The first sense of dance’s power is the gruesome murder of Olga (Elena Fokina). As Susie (Dakota Johnson) spins and twists before the rest of the class, Olga is brutally mangled while alone in a hall of mirrors, her body reshaped against its will. “When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator,” Madame Blanc tells Susie later in the film. “You empty yourself so that her work can live within you.” There’s so much going on in that thesis statement of a line, alluding to Susie potentially being a vessel for Helena Markos as well as her ability to transform and reshape people by taking their place in the dance academy. Yet the line also suggests that Susie is a receptive figure for Madame Blanc’s instruction and care, and that there may be another way for her to be as a person in the world. Susie has two mothers, a terrible mom in Ohio and an art mom in Berlin. The woman she becomes will be an amalgam of these identities.
Even though Susie doesn’t declare “I am She” until the climax of Suspiria, she is She (Mother Suspiriorum) in a diminished form from the very beginning. Mid-film while Susie ascends as a star pupil and gets in touch with her body, she is besieged by bad dreams in the dance academy. Susie awakens and screams “I know who I am!” Is that meant as an assertion that she is a young woman from Ohio named Susie Bannion, or is that an unconscious admission that she knows she is Mother Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs? Maybe that will become clear on additional rewatches. But there’s that knowing way she completes Madame Blanc’s idea about spells that I mentioned earlier. Maybe, like so many promising artists and young women, she knows more than she thinks she knows.
There’s so much about dancing and Susie’s budding sexuality running through this film. There’s a key exchange between Susie and Madame Blanc that’s rife with sexual tension; the moment plays like a teacher seducing her student:
MADAME BLANC: When you were dancing, what did it feel like inside you? Inside your body?
SUSIE: It felt like what I think it must feel like to f**k.
MADAME BLANC: You mean to f**k a man?
SUSIE: No. I was thinking of an animal?
Later we watch as Susie writhes on the ground on all fours improvising a dance, caught in the throes of an animalistic ardor that she’s never been able to express before. Beneath her in the floorboards, the hands of Helena Markos (also played by Tilda Swinton) paw up at her in admiration and desire. During the dream sequences, we see a young Susie hiding in a wardrobe touching herself like most adolescents are prone to do; exploring your own body is natural. Yet young Susie is discovered touching herself, and is punished by having her hand burned with an iron. We then see a bloody hand smear a scarlet “A” on a wall; Hawthorne would be proudly appalled. All of Susie’s sexual repression and timidness about the body are shed through leaving home to dance. No wonder she wants to be the company’s hands; she wants the freedom of self-expression (which includes sexual exploration) that her hands were denied. To the floor she goes, allowing her body to explore space and express itself and her wants. Interestingly, we see Madame Blanc, Susie’s art mother, encouraging this exploration and then trying to get her up off from the ground into the air. Here I sense Madame Blanc’s desire to elevate her student in a nurturing way, and also ushering her into an action that is similar to a witch taking flight.
There’s a fascinating notion of what dance can and should be in the film, and it’s rooted in control of women’s bodies and a rejection/acceptance of “feminine” values and aesthetics. In the interview with Garage cited above, Kajganich mentions that Mary Wigman was one of the first dancers he researched, fascinated by her shift away from ballet to expressionistic dance in the 1920s. “Wigman was one of the choreographers to whom Joseph Goebbels was reacting with his 1937 proclamation that dance ‘must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy,’” Kajganich said. Here are masculine values imposed on women, telling women how they should act, how they should move, and how they should think. In the Tanz Academy’s reaction against the horrors of Nazism, they established an oppositional aesthetic. “There are two things that dance can never be again—beautiful and cheerful,” Madame Blanc declares. She adds defiantly, punkishly, “Today we must break the nose of every beautiful thing.” And yet notice what happens as Susie emerges as Mother Suspiriorum in her blood-soaked apotheosis. As bodies explode and twirl around her in a bath of blood, Susie commands, “Dance, everyone, dance. It’s so beautiful.” We’ve gone from men defining what feminine beauty should be, to women rebelling against this masculine definition of beauty, to a woman reasserting and redefining beauty in her own way.
When one of the witches sets Dr. Josef Klemperer free the next morning, she remarks, “Everything is pretty,” and sings him a lullaby. The bad dreams are over, at least for now.
The Wound of History
“Give me absolute control / Over every living soul / And lie beside me, baby / That’s an order” —Leonard Cohen, “The Future”
Dr. Klemperer may be the most divisive element of the new Suspiria. He’s gimmicky, for one. Swinton got covered in prosthetic makeup to the play fictional male actor Lutz Ebersdorf who is credited with the role; she even read a letter from Ebersdorf at the Venice Film Festival premiere of the movie to explain the fictional man’s absence. More than the gimmickry, Suspiria’s wounded historical subtext is built almost entirely around Dr. Klemperer, and these ruminations on Germany’s shame, guilt, and remorse throughout the 20th century are alienating without context. I suggest reading Nate Jones’ post-war German history primer at Vulture for a good grounding on the German Autumn and the politics of 1977. It’s one way to appreciate the texture of this Suspiria reimagining, and his breakdown is far better than anything I can attempt.
Even now I struggle a bit as I write about Klemperer, a man whose wife Anke (Jessica Harper, who played Susie in the original film) was killed by the Nazis during WWII. Yet I can see his function in the plot, a vessel to explore masculine/feminine aspects in psychoanalysis as well as the broader scope of history. He is the most prominent male character in the entire film, and he seems purposefully on the outskirts of a plot that is driven by women; he is completely unaware of this secret world of powerful women operating in plain sight, and even denies that such a thing might exist. When we encounter Klemperer at the beginning of the film, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) tries to tell him of the dangers of the Tanz Academy. Rather than take Patricia’s concerns seriously, he assumes she’s just being delusional and hysterical. It’s not until Patricia goes missing that he goes to the authorities. Patricia—a reflection for Susie and Sara (Mia Goth) as I mentioned in part one—is also a reflection of Anke. We learn later in the film that Anke wanted to flee the Nazis sooner, but Klemperer ignored her concerns (possibly thinking his wife was hysterical), which led to their separation, her capture, and her extermination in the Theresienstadt death camp. As Klemperer is kidnapped by one of the Tanz witches, they yell at him in condemnation, “When women tell you the truth, you don’t believe them!”
I bring up “hysteria” since it seems an apt term regarding the masculine/feminine divides of Suspiria. Hysteria was a patriarchal diagnosis in medicine used for thousands of years to control women’s minds and bodies. In Terri Kapsalis’ Lit Hub essay “Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus,” she mentions that hysteria was once associated with the idea that a woman’s uterus would migrate through her body in search of semen, resulting in a host of symptoms. The best cure for a wandering uterus was pregnancy, which is essentially rendering a woman’s sexuality domesticated and subservient to male sexuality. Kapsalis also notes that limiting a woman’s creative and intellectual pursuits was a remedy for hysteria in the 19th century. Outside of the false medical applications of the term, men often invoke female hysteria as a way to disregard a woman’s opinions. Think of how many times men tell women to calm down, that they’re being too emotional, or just outright saying that they’re being hysterical. It’s a silencing tool and a belittling tool that avoids listening to what women have to say while reifying ideas about masculine stoicism as the only expression of objectivity. Hysteria may simply be an outdated masculine word for women rebelling against the rigid patriarchal culture they’re born into and unable to escape. In retrospect, a woman transgressing the proscribed and limiting gender norms of her time isn’t the sickness of hysteria but a sign she is possibly saner than people think.
But coming back to Klemperer, Britt Hayes’ extensive psychoanalytic analysis includes Kajganich’s insight on the character’s role as witness. During the climactic sabbath of the film, Klemperer is stripped naked and watches the proceedings in a pathetic heap. He is helpless, and he can only watch without enacting change. It’s emasculating, but it’s also a role he’s played all his life. “Either someone is an active witness, meaning they will do something about what they see, or they are a passive witness,” Kajganich explained. Hayes elaborates by characterizing the passive witness as “someone who sees acts of atrocity being committed but does nothing to intervene.” He did nothing until it was too late for his wife during World War II, and he does nothing for Patricia until it’s too late in 1977. Yet if he goes to the police and recounts what he’s witnessed inside of the dance academy, Hayes points out that no one will believe him. Witches? Death? Magic? Klemperer, too ready to discount women, will now be ridiculed and called hysterical. He becomes the male reflection and shadow of the women he failed.
I feel as if his character offers an exploration of two oft-cited quotations about history and historical perspective: George Santayana’s “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” and James Joyce’s “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Klemperer is a man who hasn’t learned from his past mistakes of ignoring women. While haunted by Anke’s death, he has never held himself responsible for her fate. When Mother Suspiriorum comes to him in the end and reveals the truth, she wipes Klemperer’s memory of the women in his life. “We need guilt, doctor, and shame, but not yours,” she says. Relieved of these pangs of regret rooted in German history, Klemperer awakens without memory of his life. But is that really a benevolent gesture on the part of Mother Suspiriorum? Fleeing the Joycean nightmare of history, is Klemperer now doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past with what little time he’s got left? “Love and manipulation—they share houses,” he says earlier in the film, which might be one way to consider how power is wielded in the film, whether by Mother Suspiriorum or the real-world forces that exist outside of Tanz Academy.
This notion of metaphorical houses brings us to the closing images of Suspiria. Rather than end with Susie in power or the Tanz Academy, we instead return to Dr. Klemperer’s East Germany cottage that he once lived in with his wife. We’ve seen this cozy little house cold and wet in the leafless German autumn, and snow-covered in the dead of winter, but in the final shot it is spring, perhaps summer. The world is lush and green, the people younger; it seems like years have passed, not just a few months. We do not see any of our primary characters from the film. No one seems to notice the heart with Anke and Josef’s initials carved into the corner of this structure, bisected by the bend in the wall. (The epilogue is titled “A Sliced Up Pear,” which is what Josef has for breakfast, and is also one way to think of a heart shape. It could even be a pun on “pairs” as a reference to the separation of Josef and Anke, and all the doubles, shadows, reflections, and oppositional forces of the film.) The world goes on and forgets history even when its scars are present everywhere.
Looming over the cottage, though, is a towering electric pylon, whose geometry reminds me a little bit of the windows and walls and floors of the original Suspiria, and of the pentacle on the floor of the new Suspiria. Powerful magic, hidden or suggested, in plain sight.
The More Things Change (Featuring Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)
“La-la-la-la La la-la / La-la-la-la La la-la / WITCH!” —Goblin, “Suspiria”
Film scholar Carol J. Clover coined the term “Final Girl” in 1987 (if not sooner), identifying the trope of the morally pure female horror movie survivor who fights back against her stalker. Citing patterns in 1970s and 1980s slasher films, Clover noted that the Final Girl is usually “the girl scout, the bookworm, the mechanic” who is not sexually active or available. “The Final Girl is boyish,” Clover writes in “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” She adds that the early Final Girls are usually not fully feminine; many of the early Final Girls have boyish names and boyish interests that differentiate them from their more feminine peers. The trope has changed over time, perhaps starting with the deconstructions seen in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream. In an interview with Indiewire, Kajganich suggests that Susie of the new Suspiria offers a modern alternative to the Final Girl trope. “In most horror films, that main character is just the object of the violence of the film,” he said. “We wanted Susie to be sometimes, and certainly by the end, the subject of the horror of the film.” (Perhaps Susie eventually wearing the black gloves of an Italian horror movie killer makes sense.)
This shift from object to subject speaks to more strides made in the culture at large regarding female representation, female agency, and women’s voices. It may even speak to the way we identify and criticize the toxic aspects of masculinity that comprise the patriarchy and dominated cultural discourse for generations. While the new Suspiria taps into the anxieties of Germany in 1977, it’s also a movie that expresses this current tumultuous moment in the world. Though conceived before #MeToo and Time’s Up, the concerns of these movements are expressed in the themes of Suspiria. I wonder if the movie also expresses some of the worries about chaotic governments seemingly at the verge of failure. “Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?” Susie asks Madame Blanc. Why indeed.
Now is an ideal time for a movie about the potentially positive power of the witch and what She can represent. Newsweek noted last year that there has been an increase in pagans and practicing witches in the United States, going from 8,000 in 1990 to 1.5 million this year. Younger generations are eschewing patriarchal orthodoxy and Christianity for an earthier, more feminine spiritualism. The report notes that “witchcraft has more followers than the 1.4 million mainline members of the Presbyterian church.” Consider the popularity of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, or the Netflix show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Netflix even has a new show forthcoming about a time-traveling Afro-Columbian witch called Siempre Bruja. And to think, just eight years ago, conservative activist Christine O’Donnell was prey to a bunch of sexist and mean-spirited attacks over a 1999 clip of her admitting to having Wiccan friends and dabbling in witchcraft during college. (Maybe witchcraft was a pretext to make fun of her regressive politics, but still.)
How times have changed.
Suspiria (2018) dir. Luca Guadagnino pic.twitter.com/ZdH0lWwvHi
— the Cinema Understander (@FILMFAGGOT) January 4, 2019
But, then again, how times have stayed the same.
Dance and demonization of women made me think of a recent story involving New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Young, outspoken, and full of potential, she has become a cipher for conservative/patriarchal fears of women on the left. In an attempt to paint Ocasio-Cortez as naive and irrelevant, various conservative Twitter accounts posted videos of her in college dancing to Phoenix’s “Lisztomania.” Yet rather than making her seem foolish and irrelevant, the video only made her more endearing to her constituents and followers online. A parody account of AOC dancing to various songs was born, as were numerous good-spirited parody videos of the original “Lisztomania” clip. That’s the story behind the embedded tweet above featuring AOC dancing to Thom Yorke’s “Volk” from the Suspiria soundtrack.
Women in politics, the arts, and any positions of power or influence will continue to have their ideas—their mere presence, even—mocked whenever they come up against the pervading patriarchal power structures that are in place. Pop star Cardi B has recently come under fire for expressing her opinions about the longest government shutdown in US history. The old rule is this: Men are allowed to be awful, but girls must be quiet and women must know their place. But perhaps AOC represents a new face and a new hope for progressive women in politics. Nothing the opposing side says about her has slowed her down, because she doesn’t need their validation to affirm her own worth. Young women can be frightening to the patriarchy in that way.
(Fittingly, the term “Lisztomania” refers to a kind of hysteria exhibited by fans of the 19th century composer Franz Liszt. Also known as Liszt fever, the term was generally applied to women who admired Liszt and felt themselves get carried away by his music. Again, female hysteria. The Wikipedia entry on Lisztomania notes that the composer could “raise the mood of the audience to a level of mystical ecstasy” during his performances. If that doesn’t suggest magic of the hidden variety like the dances at Tanz Academy, I don’t know what does.)
So we get an idea of what is expected of girls and women, but what about boys? Over the weekend, the recent controversy involving students of Covington Catholic High School visiting Washington, DC stemmed in part from their participation in the March for Life. The annual protest seeks a nationwide ban on abortion, part of a conservative war against a woman’s right to choose. Many of the speakers at the protest were men, engaged in the age-old practice of telling women what they should do with their bodies, and turning female sexuality into something that should be domesticated or punished. Even though the boys were being rowdy and antagonistic, the old rules applied to them as well: Boys will be boys, and they get to tell girls their place. Something tells me the worst is yet to come.
One line sticks out to me toward the end of Suspiria that might speak to this uncertain moment in history, and presents a hopeful way forward.
The dancers awaken from sleep and start a new day. The status quo is different, a new regime is in charge. Caroline (Gala Moody), whose jumping ability was taken from her and given to Susie, is now able to leap again with ease. She has been restored; the new Mother is more benevolent than her cannibalistic predecessors. A dance instructor offers words of encouragement to the students.
“Be brave, girls,” she says.