Entry updated 9 January 2020. Tagged: Film.
1. Film (1977). Produzioni Atlas Consorziate presents a Seda Spettacoli production. Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on excerpts from Suspiria de Profundis ["Sighs from the Depths"] by Thomas De Quincey (Spring-Summer Blackwood's Magazine 1845; coll 1854; rev 1891). Cast includes Dario Argento, Eva Axén, Joan Bennett, Miguel Bosé, Flavio Bucci, Stefania Casini, Jessica Harper, Udo Kier, Barbara Magnolfi, Renato Scarpa, Lela Svasta and Alida Valli. Colour. 98 minutes.
American student Susie Bannion (Harper) discovers that a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg, Germany is a front for a peculiarly murderous form of witchcraft [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].
"If the things that have fretted us had not some art for retiring into secret oblivion, what a hell would life become!" wrote Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) in the Notes for Suspiria epilogue of the Gothic fantasy Suspiria de Profundis, one of several such affiliated fragments of prose-poetry by which the film Suspiria was inspired. "Now, understand how in some nervous derangements this Horror really takes place," continues De Quincey. "Some things that had sunk into utter forgetfulness, others that had faded into visionary power, all rise as gray phantoms from the dust; the field of our earthly combats that should by rights have settled into peace, is all alive with hosts of resurrections – cavalries that sweep in gusty charges – columns that thunder from afar – arms gleaming through clouds of sulphur."
De Quincey's detailed description of the three "Ladies of Sorrow" in Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow – one of half-a-dozen thematically-linked pieces from Suspiria de Profundis first conceived by the author as a sequel in "impassioned prose" to Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (September-October London Magazine 1821; 1822; rev 1856), and designated by editor Sidney Low in De Quincey: Selected Works (1911) as "among the finest examples of De Quincey's or anybody else's English style" – furnished Dario Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi not only with Suspiria's dramatic structure and theme – and, indeed, that of its sequels in The Three Mothers film trilogy, Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007) – but also, it would seem, with the frenzy of delirium by which the film performs a full-bore assault on the senses of the viewer. "It was like a dream, it was like a nightmare, it was like a fairy-tale, and it was also like something that was seducing me and making me suffer at the same time," says Australian academic Patricia MacCormack of her first experience of watching Suspiria in Fear at 400 Degrees: The Cine-Excess of Suspiria, a documentary made to accompany the re-release of the film on DVD in 2015. "... It was an intensely masochistic experience." If the sumptuous production design and emotional interiority of Roger Corman's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe had foregrounded the possibility of a Cinema of Decadence pitched at the rejection of bourgeois values in much of the popular culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Suspiria turned this aesthetic elaboration up to eleven and set it to a sinuously-suggestive syncopation of soundtrack and sound design.
"Music is a good half of this film," says film critic Kim Newman in Fear at 400 Degrees, alluding to the rock-operatic atmosphere created for Suspiria by Agostino Marangolo, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli and Claudio Simonetti (as progressive-rock group Goblin) over the course of a four-month collaboration with director Dario Argento before shooting began. The precise calibration of lighting, colour and additional sound dubbing does much to contribute to the intensity of a film in which little is explained, but everything is experienced. It is telling, too, that Suspiria opens with a torrential downpour above the fairy-tale façade of the Tanz dance academy in Freiburg, and that from this moment on any attempt on the part of any character to supply a lucid analysis of the goings-on at the academy or, indeed, to escape to the coherence of the outside world is doomed: this is a form of Fantastika in which rational explanations are irrelevant and in which only the concentrated aesthetics of painted interiors and stormy weather convey any real meaning (for more on the link between the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 and the effect of the resulting "Year of No Summer" on the emergence of Gothic SF see the entry on Lord Byron). Argento says he got the idea for Suspiria's foundational barrage of the senses from fellow director Sergio Leone, who had read an account in the autobiography of Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974) of Hollywood writers gathering for an important meeting with the film mogul and Goldwyn's telling them of his idea for a film that would begin with the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano and increase in dramatic intensity from there. "I decided to apply Goldwyn's principle to Suspiria," says Argento in Fear at 400 Degrees, "in which the first sixteen to eighteen minutes are a seamless crescendo that escalates until that moment the girl is hanged in the house."
The resulting frenzy of minutely-composed female suffering in Suspiria is extraordinary, as fleeing dance student Patricia Hingle (Axén) is first pursued, stabbed and eviscerated by a Supernatural Creature before being dropped, dead, with a noose around her neck, through the school's ornate stained-glass skylight. Then, in the wake of a rabid guide dog ripping out the throat of a blind pianist, Susie's newfound friend Sara (Casini) becomes entangled in a pit of razor wire before having her throat slit by a humanoid demon (see Gods and Demons) who, it emerges, is "Helena Markos" or Mater Suspiriorum (Svasta) herself, or, perhaps, some otherworldly familiar thereof, and of rather different temperament than that of "Our Lady of Sighs" as she appears in De Quincey's essay Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, who "never clamours, never defies, dreams not of rebellious aspirations". The transposition of the gory stab-wounds in the sides of the Christ figure in the baroque sculptures of the great cathedrals of Spain, Italy and Latin America to the bodies of blameless young women in Suspiria is at least as disturbing at it is intended to be, and echoes not only the combination of anguish and spiritual elevation in many forms of Religion, but also the luridly-rendered violence of the Giallo tradition of Pulp thrillers with which Argento began his career, most famously with L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo ["The Bird with the Crystal Plumage"] (1970) and Profondo rosso ["Deep Red"] (1975).
Gialli very often pitched a (male) protagonist from the urban north of Italy into garish accounts of ferocity and vengeance in Italy's rural south in a manner reminiscent of the way in which protagonist Jonathan Harker travels west-to-east in Bram Stoker's famous Vampire novel Dracula (1897; rev 1901), thereby relaying much of Italian citizens' then-contemporary ambivalence about the relationship between anti-fascist street protests and the political turbulence caused by a succession of failed governments. The actions of the Brigate Rosse ["Red Brigades"] – with which Politics Dario Argento was briefly affiliated – may have informed the transformational nature of the violence in Suspiria and, too, its aesthetic connection to the colour red, but it is the contrast between the gore and the emotional intimacy between the young women that lends Suspiria much of its emotional power.
Screenwriter Daria Nicolodi said she based elements of the screenplay on tales her grandmother told about an encounter with black Magic during a piano lesson at a music academy (Argento later contradicted this account), combining this with rules of dream-logic and Fabulation from fairy-tales such as Bluebeard, Pinocchio and, perhaps most importantly, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll. Suspiria's financial backers refused to countenance a horror film with child actors, but protagonist Susie Bannion combines visual attributes from both Alice in Wonderland and Snow White. Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli had travelled to Texas to buy what little then remained in the United States of the Technicolor film stock used to such vibrant effect in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), combining anamorphic lenses and imbibition technicolor prints to accentuate the nightmarish juxtaposition of primary colour and velvety darkness in Suspiria's psychedelic set-pieces.
If expressionist cinema in the mould of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) influenced the mannered approach of Suspiria's approach to sets, lighting and technical precision, the Freudian Psychology of Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) informs the sense of the students' being menaced unseen from the shadows. Argento has asserted in interviews that it is more affecting to see a young woman being murdered "than an ugly girl or man", doing little to alleviate the frequent charges of misogyny levelled at Suspiria (see Women in SF), but Nicolodi's careful handling of how Bannion's "curiouser and curiouser" attitude relates to unfolding events unfolding events denotes some part of the indefatigability of young women in fairy-tales, and the dance school setting suits the highly-choreographed nature of the action perfectly. The limited amount of Technicolor film stock meant that every shot had to be sufficiently exact to require no more than two takes and this careful control over the flow of the camera accentuates the dramatic tension.
"The rules of Eton require that a boy on the foundation should be there twelve years," writes Thomas De Quincey in Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow. "... Children torn away from mothers and sisters at that age not unfrequently die. I speak of what I know." It is Argento and Nicolodi's success at communicating De Quincey's intense interiority of sight that is, perhaps, Suspiria's most literary aspect, and one that illuminates its superiority over almost every other attempt to transfer the Gothic sensibility to film: the contrast between light and dark, between one's emotional life and the process of Enlightenment, is at Suspiria's core. De Quincey's Mater Lachrymarum ["Our Lady of Tears"], who "raves and moans, calling for vanished faces," is the Villain of The Mother of Tears (2007), the last in Argento's The Three Mothers trilogy, and Mater Tenebrarum – the source of the title of Fritz Leiber's Gothic tale of addiction in the City, Our Lady of Darkness (January-February 1977 F&SF as "The Pale Brown Thing"; 1977) – that of Inferno (1980), the (somewhat less successful) sequel to Suspiria set in New York, who is, according to De Quincey, "the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides". De Quincey (in common with many of his contemporaries) never identified any contradiction between his opposition to Slavery, which he described more than once as a "tropical disease", and his support of the Economics of aristocratic privilege that enabled it, and it is a similar contrast between the privacy of female anger and the continuing aggression of many of the world's public institutions towards women that provides a large part of Suspiria's unspoken thematic impetus. [MD]
2. Film (2018). Amazon Studios presents a First Sun, Frenesy Film Company, K Period Media, Memo Films, Mythology Entertainment, Vega Baby and Videa production. Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by David Kajganich, based on the Suspiria screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Cast includes Małgosia Bela, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, Olga Ivanova, Dakota Johnson, Christine LeBoutte, Chloë Grace Moretz, Fabrizia Sacchi, Renée Soutendijk, Tilda Swinton, Sylvie Testud, Alek Wek and Angela Winkler. Colour. 152 minutes.
Remakes are more often made for money than for love, but the latter intention can as easily lead a filmmaker astray. Director Luca Guadagnino's detailed appreciation for Dario Argento's Suspiria of 1977 (see 1 above) is all too evident in this two-and-a-half-hour-long cover version, but screenwriter David Kajganich's comprehension of how far the Gothic sensibility informed the original's Equipoise of Fabulation and Horror is, perhaps, less precise.
Fantastika relies on an imaginary realm more real than our own to relay a deeper understanding of societal constructs: the more the motives of the witches in this remake are rationalized in relation to the "real world" of 1970s Berlin, the less they make sense. This is not for lack of effort. The revolutionary Politics of the Red Army Faction (more popularly known as the "Baader-Meinhof Group") are brought forth from allusion to foreground, references to the sublimated shame of Germany's attempt to eradicate Europe's Jews during World War Two serve as backstory for the character of psychotherapist Dr Josef Klemperer (Swinton, in a man-suit of make-up and prosthetics), and the dramatization of a schism within the coven of witches controlling the dance academy demonstrates how easily a society can be suborned to a dominant person or ideology. "You can give someone your delusion," says Dr Klemperer to dance student Sara Simms (Goth). "That is Religion. It was the Reich." The additions contribute to the realism of this second version of Suspiria but distract from the journey of Hero Susie Bannion from the backwater of a Mennonite homestead in Ohio to her "true" Identity as the Reincarnation of Mater Suspiriorum. The film has three protagonists – Bannion, Dr Klemperer and Madame Blanc – and each gets in the way of the others.
Where the film does succeed is in making dance a centrepiece of the action. The ritual begins with an unwitting beating-by-Telekinesis delivered by Bannion during her audition to fellow student Olga Ivanova (Fokina) and builds to a finale in which the Helena Markos troupe performs its critically-acclaimed dance "Volk" in public for the last time. This, it emerges, is a pretext, or cover, for a "witches sabbath" in which the previously-sacrificed Olga and Sara return as Zombies and Helena Markos (Swinton, in a pox-ridden fat-suit) fails to replace Mater Suspiriorum as the leader of the coven by using the younger dancers as a means of Rejuvenation. "There are two things dance can never be again," says Madame Blanc (Swinton, with cigarette and long black wig) to Susie: "Beautiful and cheerful. We must break the nose of every beautiful thing." "Volk" is German for "people", similar in derivation to the English word folk, as in "folk music" or "folk belief", and the source in German philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of ideas of national identity later exploited by fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in his rise to power. This consciousness of the correlation between the behaviour of the witches and their own treatment by a patriarchal and militaristic society occurs, however, through the character of "rational psychotherapist" Josef Klemperer and not through Susie Bannion, and this lack of connection between Susie and the theme of the film serves more to slow the arrival of dramatic set-pieces than to shed light on the motifs of the second Suspiria's source material.
Francisco Goya's famous painting Aquelarre ["Witches' Sabbath"] (1798) is used as backdrop to the horrifying (and wholly realistic) denouement to High-Rise (2016), adapted by Amy Jump from the J G Ballard novel High-Rise (1975), for which Ballard drew on his experiences in a Japanese civilian POW camp during World War Two, and the Ego, Id and Super-Ego theory of structural Psychology – to which there are various references in both Kajganich's script and Guadagnino's direction – informed the dramatic structure and imaginary landscapes of Satoshi Kon's Dream-Hacking Anime Paprika (2006); it is not that similarly profound arguments about human behaviour do not occur in Suspiria as much as they fail to cohere to the actions of its central protagonist and thus unite the real and imaginary planes of the film. "I regret what my daughters did to you," Susie Bannion/Mater Suspiriorum tells Josef Klemperer during the movie's final coda, "I wasn't in a position to prevent it ... We need guilt, Doctor, and shame, but not yours." This last-minute mea culpa seems intended to marry the revolutionary Feminism of imaginary witchcraft to the real-life atrocities of Holocaust Fiction and thereby to connect to Dr Klemperer's own comparison of murderous nationalism to the impact of an abusive parent but a powerful witch as an apologetic mother seems a curiously masculine fantasy. Suspiria's remake is nonetheless an honest film, and one with plenty to say about cultural Amnesia and the abuse of power. [MD]
- Internet Movie Database – 1977 film
- Internet Movie Database – 2018 film
- The Encyclopedia of Fantasy: Witchcraft
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