Suspiria. 2018. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Screenplay by David Kajganich, based on characters created by Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi.
Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Malgorzata Bela, Chloë Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Alek Wek, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Clémentine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, & Fabrizia Sacchi.
First Sun/Videa/Frenesy Film Company
Rated R. 152 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article contains major spoilers!
Father Gore prefers Deep Red as a personal Dario Argento favourite, yet continues to love Suspiria plenty, for a whole lot of reasons. It was interesting to hear anybody would remake the film, only more so when it was announced the director to do it would be Luca Guadagnino, from a screenplay written by David Kajganich. Remakes can go either way— some are fantastic (ex. The Hills Have Eyes, The Crazies), others are miserable (ex. A Nightmare on Elm Street), some are middle of the road (ex. Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). You can never dismiss reboots or remakes outright because the originals always remain there to be loved, and a remake can, sometimes, offer filmmakers of newer generations influenced by those originals to take those familiar stories into different directions, exploring new themes.
Guadagnino and Kajganich mould this classic’s many elements into a work of art all their own. 2018’s Suspiria hangs onto the mythology and setting of Argento. From there, it builds a story about motherhood, fascism and other abuse(s) of power, as well as the sexuality of women. These themes are wrapped up in a creepy package, explored through a coven of witches hiding in plain sight at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin. Other critics have suggested Kajganich’s screenplay reaches in too many directions, never quite fully grasping its loftiest ambitions. Father Gore believes this Suspiria is a powerfully terrifying and horrifically beautiful exploration of feminine power. The use of Berlin in ’77, allusions to Nazi Germany, and several Jungian connections are all part of this story allowing women to be what they wish and whatever nature intends— good or evil, or maybe somewhere in between.
“In this company, we fully understand the importance of a woman’s financial autonomy.”
One of the earliest themes of the film comes from Carl Jung’s work on archetypes and his ideas about the libido. Specifically, the archetype of the Great Mother v. the Terrible Mother are intertwined in this story’s many layers, also represented in a general way by the dichotomy of good and evil as opposing forces.
Allusions to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany aren’t merely used to start a conversation about fascism. Neither are they, as Kajganich explains it partly, just about national guilt. These references to a once fascist Germany are about the total opposites of powerful physical/ideological forces. On one end of the spectrum are the Nazis and war, the placeholders of death and destruction, and also qualities of the Terrible Mother. On the opposite end are qualities attributed to the Great Mother, such as creativity, birth/rebirth, and sexual union. Nazism is the antithesis of the libido and sexuality, further seen in the sexual repression of Nazi Germany, from homosexuals being murdered in the camps alongside Jews to the purging of anybody suspected as gay from SS ranks and other various sexually-related atrocities.
The Markos Dance Academy is a beacon of modern fascism. One of the best pieces of symbolism concerns the idea of dance as a form of spell casting, as Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) briefly refers to the art. Like the Nazis, the fascist witches under Mother Markos use dance to cast their spells, on their own dissenting members and the public. Moreover, Blanc uses the word “Volk” as the title of their final performance. This term was used heavily in propaganda and political slogans for the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler and the long arm of his film industry portrayed citizens under Nazism as happy, prosperous people, concealing the horrors of the Holocaust and war beneath propagandised images, not unlike how the academy uses dance to conceal the effects of their spells. “They saw a dance, that‘s all,” Madame Blanc assures Susie (Dakota Johnson) after she goes “off book” and nearly reveals the coven when Sara (Mia Goth) is brutally injured. The coven operate secretively, like the Nazis did to the outside world, by playing into duality.
A significant symbol re: duality is that of Kali, representative of the Great + Terrible Mother. One of the posters for Suspiria visually resembles the Hindu goddess. This image of Kali, in relation to womanhood, is important because it involves the idea of a woman being able to encompass all types of womanhood, not only what’s set out by society— a woman can have what society believes are qualities of men and women while remaining a woman. Kali is both a nurturing and devouring goddess. She’s often seen as a destroyer of evil forces, too. This can be interpreted as the final stage Susie later experiences. She embraces the light and dark of femininity, using her newfound power to obliterate the evil festering at the Markos Dance Academy.
“There’ll be nothing left of you inside, only space for me.”
Many men are terrified by a woman’s sexual autonomy. You see it alone in the fright of powerful men, at all levels of society, when things like the Me Too movement hit them too close to home. Guadagnino’s film dives deep into these waters, though not in any way to reassure those sad men. His Suspiria acknowledges the fact a sexual woman yields power by which insecure men are threatened. It further illustrates how repressing, and damaging, this sexuality can negatively alter women as individuals and also society as a whole. Again, the focus of the screenplay centres on women and motherhood. Just as patriarchy damages women, as can matriarchy if it takes on an authoritarian power structure between mothers and daughters. Mothers can hollow their daughters out emotionally, paralleled in the physical disembowelling of witches during the film’s finale. This is most visible during Susie’s first major dance, when her movements twist and tear Olga (Elena Fokina) to pieces. This imagery shows the effects of internalised misogyny on individual and generational levels – often perpetuated by mothers and projected onto their daughters – by having Blanc and the older witches manipulate the young, naive witch into unknowingly killing another woman.
Susie doesn’t only see modern fascism up close and personal when she arrives in Berlin. Her vague past suggests a complicated history with her mother, and in a broader way leans towards connecting fascism at a family level to that on a national one. There are two scenes where Susie’s in bed alone masturbating. Brief flashes of her home life show her sexuality as religiously oppressed. Short cuts show us a closet, a naked woman pointing at a dark, monstrous entity, and an iron being used as corporal punishment, all suggestive of sexuality being punished or being forcefully hidden. The fast edits here create a psychological space in which these moments are buried, deep in Susie’s psyche where she’s been forced to shove her libido, locked away in darkness. Susie’s new world at the ballet academy allows her libido to gradually break free. The sounds and rhythm of the dancing are shown as similar to sex: the primal movement, the ecstasy of those dancing + the audience watching, the heavy, often violent breathing, the slapping of skin against skin and off the hard floor like a percussive symphony. Dancing here is a distillation of sex into its purest form: a complete connection between body and mind.
An emerging libido, for women, is violent. Men don’t experience the violence of sexuality. The breaking of a woman’s hymen is a painful act of violence, so that even in sex she’s violated in at least one form. Sexuality is as frightening as it is erotic from a woman’s perspective when she’s moving from adolescence into womanhood. Susie literally tears herself open during the Witches’ Sabbath— symbolic of female physicality being shattered, giving way to her (re)birth as a new woman. It’s also the bearing of her heart as one of the new Mothers, distinctly separating her from the previous Mothers who hid themselves even from the women of the academy. Fascism represses the body, destroying it, whereas the libido allows Susie to shed her former self and step into new skin.
“Death to any other mother!”
In the end, Suspiria fully lunges into Jungian concepts by allowing Susie to be capable of creation and destruction. Witchcraft – a practise for which women have been historically punished, usually by death – ultimately becomes a vessel via which Susie uncovers her hidden feminine power, undoing her repression. She experiences a rebirth personally, allowing her libido to come to full power, and gives the Markos Dance Academy new figurative life by destroying the fascism under Mother Markos. To connect Susie’s final actions to themes of national guilt, she’s symbolic of a new generation – in Germany or any country with a hideous past – willing to hold those in power accountable for their shameful decisions— this is fully realised in her last scene with Dr. Klemperer, allowing him a more peaceful release from his guilt while she brings those with real power to a vicious end in order for them to endure the appropriate shame.
Guadagnino’s remake embraces the power(s) of women, to the point there are barely any men in the film at all. Hell, the one supporting character who’s a man isn’t even a man— he’s Tilda Swinton actually wearing a dick! Feminism – or in the case of Guadagnino, Kajganich, Father Gore, and any other men, being an ally to feminists – is not about women gaining superiority, it’s about equality. This extends even to the disparate dichotomy of good v. evil. Suspiria‘s women are allowed to be either good or bad, or a mixture of both, and their powers are never diminished because of their choices. And sometimes what’s bad is only a matter of perspective.
If you forget about the rest of the story’s thematic concerns there remains a powerful statement alone in the way these women as characters are free to be as righteous or as villainous as they deem necessary. Love it or hate it, Guadagnino’s film is a celebratory horror movie about women, and it is fucking glorious.