Jake’s review published on Letterboxd:
I used to have this posted on here but took it down for personal reasons, but I think I’m confident enough to put it back up. This is my most comprehensive piece of film analysis ever, and I want it here for ease of access and because I’m still pretty proud of it. It’s a long motherfucker though, strap in!
An Analysis of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria
I cannot sleep.
Suspiria is the first horror film to ever make me lose sleep. Not because it’s terrifying (it is), but because it is an enigma. I can’t get the film out of my head. I drove to see the film twice and here I am weeks later and its still stuck in my brain.
I am writing this to serve two purposes, one is to somewhat coherently organize my own thoughts and interpretations of the film in some kind of structure. The other is because I see a continued sentiment that films like this ‘make no sense’ and are ‘pretentious’ and, on a more valid note of critique, that this film specifically is an amalgamate of vague ideas that say nothing. And frankly, it’s all I can do to keep from giving out a beleaguered sigh.
Look, I’m not a scholar. I’m not a profound philosopher, I’m not a historian, nor am I qualified to speak on many of the subjects I am about to speak on. I have done extensive research on some things but that is to further satisfy my own curiosity rather than make this piece more well-constructed. For as many negative things I hear about this movie, I also hear positive things too, but even then I tend to roll my eyes because I read a lot of analysis of this film as being very base and ‘textural’ (ie, analyzing WHAT the movie is rather than WHY or HOW) and that may just be because all art is subjective and yadda yadda yadda, you know the drill. What I’m getting at here is that I saw a film and connected with it, and I’m a lonely college student with a lot of free time on my hands, and I genuinely believe Suspiria is a rare, enigmatic film the likes of which are rarely afforded the opportunity to even exist conceptually. I find there to be too much connective tissue between its active moving parts not just in and of themselves, but even in how they all coalesce and interact, and for as messy and dense as this film is, I am convinced it is not an accident and is entirely by design, even if that design is intentionally quite difficult to unpack. If you wanna argue with me or debate the merit of what I say here, go right ahead. Dismiss it entirely if you please. I have no illusions, I’m making this for selfish reasons mainly for myself, not for anyone else. I want to cast a lens on the film in a way that extends beyond ‘wow this is deep’ and ‘wow its so feminist’ (oh we’ll get to that…) so if you expect something formal, get out while you still can. If you’re still reading this, welcome aboard. A lot of this may come across as me saying ‘only I understand the genius of the film!’ and that couldn’t be further from the truth, I just think that most analyses of the film I have read feel vague and insubstantial and basically do nothing but further reinforce the dissenters. I am also not here to try and convince you the film is ‘good’ because I’m not stupid and like to think I have some respect for those who happen to read my stuff. This is my interpretation, flawed and irrelevant as it may be. This is not a guide, nor an explanation, and I’m not the ‘ENDING EXPLAINED!!!’ youtube channel. If you’re here for that, go elsewhere.
Keep in mind I have only seen this film twice, and my knowledge of the film is based solely on these two viewings. I have no way of easily seeing it again for the time being so… that’s all I got.
PART ONE: NARRATIVE
I know I said I wasn’t gonna go all ‘ending explained’ on you, but in order to understand my thoughts or analysis, you have to at least understand the story of the film on a base level, or at least, you have to understand what I read as the unfolding of events of the film. I will try and be concise and leave out as much speculation as possible, and where speculation is in place, I will explain to the best of my ability.
The film begins with by telling us this will be presented as a play of sorts with 6 acts and an epilogue. It begins with a scene of a girl, a former dancer of the school, approaching Doctor Josef. In this scene, we are basically told a great deal about the film with very little. The girl is worried that the dance studio she works for is something more, in fact, she believes they are a coven of witches with supernatural powers, and fears for her own life. We are given an important bit of characterization here that I didn’t really catch until the second viewing, Josef starts writing off her proclamations of supernatural events as being delusions, as he is a psychiatrist. And, later in the film, says he does not doubt that her perceived experience is real, but it is more than likely being caused by something that is more ‘real’. We then are treated to a sequence where we see an entirely unrelated scene of a dying woman being taken care of, seemingly on a farmland. We later come to realize this dying woman is the main character, Susie Banion’s, mother, back at her home in Ohio. We then see Susie with little cash in hand, arrive in Berlin, and comes to the dance studio for an audition, one that at first isn’t taken seriously, however, upon examination, her skills are seemingly appreciated by the staff, especially by Madame Blanc, who seems to be in a position of power there. Thus, Susie is accepted into the dance school. We see that indeed, the teachers here are a coven of witches who can communicate telepathically, and immediately begin to discuss some kind of vague ritual, also mentioning something about their Matriarch, Helena Markos, and how she is sickly and decaying. They allude to needing a ‘new girl’ for this ritual, and they have a brief debate about who it should be. We become increasingly aware as the movie continues that the girls are not aware that the teachers are witches, and later we see that even though they are involved with some of the witches activities, they are hypnotized and have their memories cleared of their involvement. We are also treated to several radio broadcasts that explain the details involving the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181, a real-life event that occurred amidst the turmoil of the post-Berlin wall divide when a Palestinian Commando group hijacked a plane and took the passengers hostage in order to attempt to secure the release of members of the RAF, the Red Army Faction, which was a West-Germany born far-left military organization, the progression of this event is gradually revealed and ends later in the film with the news that the hijackers were ultimately stopped and failed in their mission. The next day, during dance practice, one of the girls, a friend of the one from the beginning, who has gone missing, gets into a fight with Madame Blanc, accusing the company of being ‘hypocrites’ (that’s important remember that) and accusing them of being Witches. She attempts to escape the school as the dance practice continues. Then, as Susie attempts to dance ‘Volk’- the name of the dance they are performing, Madame Blanc imbues Susie with some of her power, and unbeknownst to Susie, her incredible dance skill is violently mutilating the girl from earlier, still attempting to escape, nearly killing her. The witches then consult afterward, saying Susie may be a good choice for the vessel of their Matriarch, Helena Markos, and dispose of the contorted body of the dance student from earlier. We are also made apparent to a conflict that happening amongst the Witches, a conflict that seems to be spearheaded by Madame Blanc, who is in opposition to Helena Markos. Blanc has some supporters, but ultimately not enough, so they resume under the leadership of Markos, heavily implying that they are relying on tradition. Susie begins to work under Madame Blanc to dance the lead part in Volk, but is also being spurred on by her roommate, who suspects some form of foul play at the school but has no proof. She and Susie sneak around the school a bit, finding some bits of evidence, namely Susie seeing them hypnotizing and mocking two police officers who visit the school but mysteriously says something. This incident, along with a series of nightmares Susie is having, implied to be sent from Madame Blanc to keep an eye on her/probe her. Meanwhile, we also see Dr. Josef looking into the school, sending the aforementioned police there who are, of course, hypnotized and find nothing. He approaches Susie’s roommate, trying to inform her of the situation, but initially, she doesn’t believe. Susie continues under Blanc’s tutelage, working hard on her dancing in order to improve, unaware of her purpose but definitely let on to something being wrong. One night she has dinner with Madame Blanc where she compares dance to sex and mentions that she came from a Mennonite household, mentioning the Mennonites split away from the Amish when they became ‘too liberal’. Susie’s roommate eventually discovers a hidden room where she hears the witches screaming after one of their own takes her own life, in which she finds old objects and a weapon of sorts as proof, and returns to Josef validating his claims that something insidious is going on. Josef however, still insists that it is not supernatural and that the women are employing psychological manipulation, but the roommate still has her worries, both of them are unsure, and she leaves the weapon with Josef. Ultimately, the dance studio is about to perform ‘Volk’ for an audience, where Josef does indeed show up to see for himself. Susie questions where her roommate is briefly but gets no answer, and as an audience, we see it’s because she’s investigating the room from earlier, and doesn’t show up in time for her part. The dance proceeds without her, and while it’s happening, she finds her friend from the beginning of the film that Susie unknowingly mutilated, still alive with plenty of others, all of them seemingly half-dead and deformed grotesquely. She tries to help her friend but is scared off, and once she attempts to escape, the witches form holes in the hallway she’s traveling down, breaking her leg to stop her, but then find her, and heal the wound. She shows up in the dance hall, still and robotic, but begins to dance her part, though something is certainly still wrong with her, visually speaking, her eyes look entirely different. Because Susie ends up disrupting the flow of the dance with her own improvisation, the witches control over the falters, and she injures herself again. Dr. Josef gets close to her to try and treat her, and the performance abruptly ends. Dr. Josef then dumps the weapon given to him earlier in a river, and Susie is visited by Madame Blanc. They have a conversation telepathically, and we become aware that Susie is now entirely privy to what’s going on, though we do not know exactly why. We do know from earlier dream sequences that she had felt a call to Berlin since childhood, and even saw Madame Blanc dance once when she was younger in the states. She warns Blanc that the worst is yet to come, that the unruly performance that night was nothing compared to what’s next. The following night they have a dinner in a cafe where Susie and Blanc barely take part in the events going on around them. Josef, after dumping the hook in a river, comes back to his home to find his wife there waiting for him, a woman who was lost to him in the East-German divide, notably played by Jessica Harper, the star of the original Suspiria. He then walks around town at night with her, only to be lead to the dance studio, where his wife is revealed to be nothing but an illusion created by the witches. They then take him captive, berating him for ‘dirtying’ their belongings and supposedly not believing women, a reference to how many men in the divide kept their wives in Berlin because they thought them being paranoid wasn’t enough cause to be concerned about the rise of fascism and Nazi Germany, but also in reference to him not believing the girls who approached him about the dance studio. Earlier in the film they also mentioned using Josef as a ‘witness’ for their ritual, which is seemingly about to be performed. Susie then wakes up late at night, and follows a strange light through the studio that leads her to an underground passageway, where she finds the entire company in a strange, ritualistic interpretive dance. They have also laid out Josef, naked and weak, to ‘witness’ said dance. Overseeing it is Madame Blanc, Helena Markos, and one of Markos’s devotees. Markos herself is a disgusting shell of a human being, and makes it clear she wants to inhabit Susie as her new vessel, and Susie is seemingly okay with this. Madame Blanc however, who is still Markos’s rival, says something feels wrong and suggests the ritual be postponed, Markos however accuses her of just trying to put it all off so she can become the new leader. She then telepathically mutilates Blanc, nearly severing her entire head, making her kneel down at the spectacle before her. Susie, however, asks Markos which of the three mothers, the deities mentioned throughout the film, she belongs to, as she seems to claim leadership solely through her blood ties to the coven. She claims that she is descended from Mother Suspiriorum, and Susie calls her out as lying, saying that SHE is indeed the incarnation of Mother Suspiriorum, and her blood does not run through her. She then has a monster rise from the depths of the chamber, and on her behalf, kills Markos as well as every single witch who voted for her to stay in power. The scene descends into what can only be called a nightmare fever dream, where the monster kills half of the witches, and Susie opens up a vaginal-shaped hole in her chest. Susie then walks around the chamber, as the dance is still being performed, and mercy kills the girls who had been mutilated and tortured by the coven, including her roommate.
Once the carnage is complete, we see one of the surviving witches accompany Josef and leads him back to his home. We cut then to the next morning where the witches are cleaning the mess from the previous night, and the girls in the company say that they were drunk and don’t remember a thing. We also find that Blanc is somehow not entirely dead from her wound, barely surviving. Josef is laid up in bed for the epilogue of the film, where he is visited by Susie, who has now adopted her title as Mother Suspiriorum. Earlier in the film we also see flashbacks to Susie’s time in Ohio, one key line said by her dying mother saying that ‘her daughter is her last sin’, implying that from her birth, Susie’s mother had performed some kind of ritual in order for her daughter to be the proper vessel for the coven. She talks to Josef briefly, saying that she was sorry for how the other members of the coven treated her, and as countenance, gives him the real story of what happened to his wife, giving him closure. She reveals that his wife, Anke, died in a concentration camp alongside two other women, and that she was not afraid when she died, and used her last thoughts to think of him. She then tells him that he need not feel guilty, that ‘they (referring to oppressed women, in how I read it) need guilt and shame, but not yours’ and then promptly wipes his memory so he can live his final days without the burden of knowing all that happened with his wife and the coven. The final shot of the film is a dolly in on Josef’s house, showing a marker that he and his wife made, signing their names inside of a heart.
I think a lot of perceived confusion in this narrative comes from a few things. One is the the obviously gaudy presentation making the film feel intimidating. This quality, however, is down to subjective preference, whether or not this kind of presentation appeals to you is more a matter of taste than any form of measurable quality. Another is because, yes, the film is full of ideas and themes that are conveyed in ways that lots of critically acclaimed films that are put on a pedestal do not. I don’t want to say the film is ‘subtle’ because again, that’s mostly up to interpretation, but I think a lot of its details and finer components are presented in a very matter of fact way that lead to me realizing a lot of the film’s logic only upon revision (and rewatch), I’ll be more specific about some of these instances later. In a lot of ways, I think ‘The Dark Knight’ did a lot for film criticism, in that it both made it better, and simultaneously ruined it. The Dark Knight, as well as a lot of Nolan’s scripts, is a film that wears its themes on its sleeve, even to the point of critique where some people (myself included) feel as if the characters in the film are analyzing the very movie they’re in, talking about the themes with lofty, weighty dialogue that seems to feel like it occasionally tries too hard. The problem here is that the Dark Knight is still a very good movie, and it makes contextual sense and is in keeping with Nolan’s previous work where his characters are appropriately characterized masculine posturing know-it-alls that like to talk about how important they are. This means the film is very easy to read, it is very memorable because it’s dialogue has a ring to it that is both memorable and weighty, and is all in line with the narrative, and is contained within a very compelling story. I’m not saying the film made people dumber… okay well, I kind of am, but it leads to only a certain kind of movie being analyzed in a certain kind of way. Thankfully the resurgence of the video essay on youtube has restored my faith in the analysis community, people like Mikey Neuman, Lindsay Ellis, and Leon Thomas exist in order to provide more context that analysis is more of a fluid art than a rigid one, being able to analyze films through different critical lenses, cultural and political context, etc. It leads to films that deviate from typical storytelling conventions being woefully misunderstood and misrepresented by a lot of people in the film community, not because ‘they don’t get it’, but simply because people have very rigid expectations of what they think a ‘story’ is or can be, and how it can be presented. I know people in film school who tell me that Stanley Kubrick makes ‘experimental weird art films’ because his movies have shots that last a long time and it makes me wonder what they’d think if they saw something from Gaspar Noe, Lars Von Trier, Gyorgy Palfi, Claire Denis or Peter Greenaway (not because they’re ‘peasants who don’t know real art’ but because films from those creators are weird and make Barry Lyndon look a Tyler Perry film in terms of ‘convention’). I realize this comes off as being elitist, but a narrative, like any artistic device, is a fluid creation that serves a fluid purpose, and I feel is looked at in an incredibly narrow fashion.
PART TWO: PRESENTATION
This is another highly subjective thing that is difficult to explain. Whether or not the presentation worked for you personally isn’t what I’m talking about, I’m merely trying to explain why I believe the elements of the film to be arranged in the fashion that they are. Whether or not you found it annoying or disorganized, again, that’s your prerogative. I am not discussing the validity of the components, but the components themselves and why I found them effective.
The film, visually and texturally speaking, does not even remotely resemble the neon-drenched pastel Giallo horror of the original. What made Argento’s Suspiria so unique was that at the time, nothing really looked like it. Sure it wasn’t the first Giallo film, but it practically declared itself as the definitive film in it’s genre with its set design, lighting, and progressive-rock-infused score by ‘Goblin’. Suspiria 2018 is different in that it more resembles other films from the 1970’s not in the Giallo movement. It’s camerawork is motivated, active, rough, and organic, this being the only real way it takes from the original. The lighting itself is distinct and low-key in the vast majority of the film. It’s a movie coated in earth-tones predominantly, which makes the scenes that get really weird stand out all the more, packing a punch. I don’t feel this is an accident either, I think it’s a film designed to etch itself into the minds of viewers. There’s a scene in the film where Susie and Madame Blanc are discussing the flow of the dance, and Susie suggests that gradual, built up progression and movement means the high points of the dance will stand out less, implying that sudden sharp changes will stand out more than carefully placed ones. I think this sentiment is a microcosm of the entire film, in a way, as it feels like Guadagnino’s mission statement in order to make you remember what he wants you to pay attention to. It’s simple, but effective, as I remember the more surreal scenes in the film more vividly than things that happened to me not even a day ago. I also think it’s important that when we draw this parallel, we are acknowledging that ‘dancing’ is Luca’s thematic stand in for art in general, as I think one of the core interpretations of the film are about art and artistic purity. The way the film is edited also reinforces this, as it breaks the 180 rule several times in order to distinctly get you to pay attention to details of certain shots. On a second viewing I found myself noticing dozens of things hidden in these frames that isn’t immediately apparent. The movie itself is like the interpretive dance the girls perform, in no way is it a conventional or easily recognizable dance, it’s weird, aggressive, sexual, disjointed, and full of raw, unbridled passion. It resembles a dance loosley, in the same way that Suspiria itself resembles other horror films loosely, it’s chaotic and unpredictable nature is challenging, but I find it rewarding, and even though many may disagree, I think it’s cohesive because of what the film is actively doing on a thematic level and a visual one. In a video by youtube film critic Nyx Fears entitled ‘Suspiria and Cinematic Chaos’ she attributes the film’s gaudiness as a tool in order to purposefully confuse and frustrate the viewer in question, which is an inherently bold idea that is played around with by many cinematic auteurs of sadism like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier, but I feel Suspiria doesn’t abandon cinematic language as much as these films do. Suspiria is a film that visually and thematically gets under your skin, it’s runtime, scale, pacing, density, and challenging narrative and imagery are all, by design, an obstacle meant to be overcome. But I would argue the film goes a step further, yes, a lot of films can purposefully make a viewer very uncomfortable using the swiss army knife of filmmaking elements, but I think in all of it’s kaleidoscopic chaos, there is structure, order, intent, and vision here. It’s not just a mess… well, okay, it IS a mess, but a mess that is carefully constructed to have very clear and specific goals with it’s themes once you unravel it. I think Guadagnino’s aim was to make a film not unlike David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ a film that is no doubt captivating in it’s presentation, but confusing as well, burning itself into the audience’s brains so that the more you think about it, the more there is to find. The reason I find the critique of Suspiria 2018 that accuses it of being an unruly mess and nothing more invalid is that there are clear, obvious, blatant thematic thru lines reinforced via text, subtext, and imagery just like any other layered or complex work. Does the presentation enhance this idea or obscure it? Who's to say, but in my opinion, it worked on me in a way I can’t really describe, which means that it was at least successful with one person. I think there is merit to a film that exists purely to be challenging, broad, and frightening not only with it’s imagery, but very construction. Nyx Fears brings this up in her video analysis, that not understanding the entirety of the film lends it some appeal as a nightmarishly labyrinthine pocket of hell that suffocates you with it’s scattered density, and I agree, a friend of mine on Letterboxd said in his review that he doesn’t know how all of Suspiria fits together, or even if it did hold together, but the merit he got from the experience was that Luca Guadagnino made a film that managed to show him what his own night terrors resembled in a way he hadn’t ever seen. I do find these things to be true, but I feel like for viewers like me, who do value the visceral feeling of cinematic whiplash the film imbues in you as a raw visual experience, but who also want to dig a little deeper and figure out what else the film may be doing other than psychologically wrecking you, which I think is why I harbor the love for it that I do. It works on both levels for me, as something that can deeply emotionally traumatize me, but also as a smartly, if chaotically made, film with a lot of interesting things to say about a lot of different, albeit intersecting things. So… what are those things?
PART THREE: FASCISM AND ART
This is the reading of the film I resonated with most strongly when I walked out of it for the first time. Suspiria setting itself in Berlin is no accident, and it’s subtext about art and creativity is there, but how exactly do they intersect, if at all? Well, let’s talk about the Witches.
I think the most obvious thematic parallel in the film is between the idea of fascism and the coven of witches. To paint a bit more of a thematic broad stroke, I think this reading of the film is about the inherent suppression of art and artistic integrity under fascism, and that any power structure put into place in any context will inherently lean towards fascism. That’s a lot to unpack, so I’ll do my best to be thorough.
When you take a look at every significant moving part in the film, it has some kind of underlying fascist overtones. From the moment Susie arrives in Berlin, the first thing we see in the train station is a group of punks donned in standard punk attire approached by some official-looking men in uniform, uniform that is of course, reminiscent of fascist apparel. We already see this is a place where the different or creative are being suppressed by the remnants of fascist rule. Setting it in post-divide Berlin makes it an ideal place to showcase different facets and effects of fascist rule. One of the main characters, Josef, lost his wife to fascism, and while not apart of the fascist system that caused his wife’s demise, his complacency and inability to take his wife’s claims seriously contributed to said fascism. Susie then finds refuge in the dance studio, which *seems* to be a refuge from the exterior conflict of Berlin. Once accepted, one of the teachers even tells her she won’t need money to stay there, saying that the studio respects a woman’s financial autonomy. However, almost immediately, we’re made aware that there is a conflict amongst the coven between Markos and Blanc. I’m not saying that this conflict indicates fascism inherently, but it is a power structure that seems to be dissolving because of a desperate grasp of traditionalism wanting to maintain order over progressivism. Markos claims to be descended from the bloodline of Mother Suspiriorum, this claim really being the only thing that supports her reasoning for maintaining her authority. Blanc, her opposer, says she is obsessed with tradition without any good reason to back this up, and her supporters simply follow her out of blind faith. While again, this doesn’t indicate a fascist power struggle, in fact it leans a bit more towards traditional monarchy, it is still the reasoning and justification often used for fascist/tyrannical leaders to usurp power, either through ‘noble’ lineage or through being a part of some sort of pure race or bloodline, which Markos is clearly using to her benefit. Under which she is performing archaic rituals only meant to further preserve her and her ideology without much care for her underlings. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the dissenters of the coven are found, captured, and tortured, our earliest example of which is a woman who was said to have political ties to an anti fascist activist party. Fascism is characterized by characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society, all elements that can be found in Markos’s rule. And again, having the characters that are explicitly anti fascist be the ones targeted by the coven is something I think is an obvious reading under this lens. Within the text of this film, this also means the dance company, a place claiming to be a sanctuary from conflict, is masquerading itself, and is secretly overtaken by a form of dictatorial rule. I think the parallel to the Lufthansa flight is no mistake either. It’s a clear reflection of the coven itself. The flight was hijacked by a far-left militant group, but ultimately failed as an act of anti-fascist protest, showing that A) even though the Third Reich had fallen at the time, the lingering fascist sentiments were still prevalent at the time and B) it signaled the end of the Baader Meinhof ‘era’ by showing that fascist opposition still wasn’t entirely possible. It’s not as much a parallel so much as it is a reflection of the events of the film, reflection implying a reversal at play since Susie, the symbol of anti-fascist regime and artistic purity overcomes Markos in the end. It’s utilization is to show us the reality of what happened, and how it compares to the themes of the film.
So… about Susie…
Another bit of political subtext in the film comes from Susie’s origins, which intrinsically tie into how the end of the film plays out, as well as Susie’s character in general. She mentions to Blanc that she was a Mennonite back in Ohio, Mennonites being a protestant offshoot of the Amish faith, and expresses that there was conflict between the Amish and Mennonites out of fear of them becoming ‘too liberal’ and fracturing. This placement on the timeline of history is key as well, as the Mennonite and Amish movement in the midwestern United States had been on the rise since the 1950s, and was still going by 1977. So, to be more succinct, there was an offshoot in a religious organization where the traditional values were called into question, so a more liberal sect of people separated themselves from the main religious sect. What does this mean? Well, I hypothesize the significance of Susie’s mother saying that she was her ‘last sin’ and Susie’s call to Berlin was because her mother dabbled in some form of satanic or dark arts that lead her creating a vessel for one of the three mothers which occured when her religion was being fractured, which may or may not have lead to her illness. I think this also lends a new significance to the ending, as it could be seen as a fascist regime being destroyed and simply replaced with another, however, I think Susie’s role as Mother Suspiriorum has nothing to do with her bloodline, but more to do with that she was channeled to be the VESSEL of this mother, she was called there, it had nothing to do with blood ties, which Markos claimed she had purely to usurp control. Ostensibly, Suspiria is thematically doing what Rian Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi’ did on a thematic level, where it says that bloodlines aren’t important and anyone can be special, anyone can have a ‘calling’. There is merit and discussion to linking the symbol of artistic freedom and something inherently demonic, but I think the Witches, as silly as this sounds, are not inherently evil. They may have seen some of what they had done as righteous or even vengeance-seeking, but they were abusing their power, something to which Susie doesn’t look to do, in fact this may be the source of her ire with Markos in general. And yes, I do also view Susie and, by extension, Madame Blanc, as symbols of artistic freedom and purity. It’s well-known that art and expression is a result of individuality and identity, which means under fascist rule, only creations that LEAD to fascist rule are viewed as artistically valid, an idea that can be seen through the Nazis sieging of art, burning what they didn’t want, and valuing things like Beethoven because of his supposed heritage (a Beethoven record is even in the film’s opening scene, the girl fleeing from the school hides it when she begins to turn away objects that she feels the witches may be watching her from, further pointing to the coven being characterized as fascist) so logically speaking, the coven, under the leadership of Markos, is being artistically suppressed. They are performing ‘Volk’ PURELY because it will continue Markos’s leadership, because she allows it to, which is about as on the nose as it gets when it comes to these parallels. Susie isn’t just the symbol of artistic purity because she opposes Markos, it’s because throughout the film she demonstrates desire to inject her own voice into her dance. She feels an artistic calling to be a dancer and can’t operate under the strict confines set for her under the rule she’s subjugated to. Blanc is also her advocate, her mentor, encouraging her voice and opposing Markos wanting to abandon the vague confines of tradition that the other witches blindly follow, also further enforced by her name, ‘Blanc’, french for the color ‘white’ often associated with purity or the concept of a blank canvas. Not to mention at the end, when the spectacle of the final ritual is out in it’s full absurd glory, Mother Markos simply says ‘this, now THIS is art’ as if she is the harbinger of what can or cannot be labeled as artistically valid, not to mention I think there’s something to be said about the self-aware comic absurdity of having who is ostensibly the antagonist of your film call your own climax ‘art’ even though Markos is shown to be full of shit, which I think is a bit of a knowing jab from Luca at his own crazy artistic undertaking.
I found these ideas to be fairly basic and even textural in some cases, but what convinces me of their validity is that all these disparate elements all line up together to the say the same thing in a different way: Fascism is inherently artistically oppressive. Not to mention the little visual details I’m sure I can’t remember entirely due to my limited viewing of the film, such as the opening scene where the products of fascist rule are turned away by the escaped dancer.
PART FOUR: ‘FEMINISM’
Okay here’s where things get kinda nasty.
A lot of people keep analyzing the film through a supposed feminist lens, but from what I can make of it, they are doing so in the most shallow way humanly possible. I must point out here that analyzing something under ‘feminist theory’ and a piece of work ‘being feminist’ is not the same thing and is in fact, not even remotely close in proximity. I am doing the former, because I keep seeing think-pieces online say things like ‘well the film is feminist because it gives power to women’ and ‘but it could also be seen as anti-feminist’ because the witches are evil and use their power in horrible ways. First, I established that the witchcraft in the film is not inherently evil, just used under the authority of someone who’s evil. Second, I don’t think showcasing women in a position of power and using it for immoral means is an indictment of women as a whole, or even an indictment of power, as it’s a fairly black and white way of looking at things. I think the feminist undertones in Suspiria are there, but not in the places most obvious to examine.
I think Suspiria has something to say about women explicitly in the sense that it shows that absolute power corrupts absolutely, regardless of identity. I think this is also shown through the fact that one character is, in fact, canonically transgender, and if you look close enough, I think a few members of the dance company may also be transgender, or at least were chosen because they do not look traditionally feminine, as well as the choice to make Tilda Swinton both a main female and male character, further blurring these lines and the significance of the lines thereof. The coven of witches is entirely female, and fascism somehow finds its way into their hierarchy, even though historically speaking most, if not all, fascist dictators and institutions have been male-driven and even actively oppressive to women specifically. I think it’s certainly adventurous to show that it is, at this point, a human predisposition to abuse of power than it is about being male or female, though leave it to people more intelligent than me to talk about whether or not depicting women as falling into the same political traps as men is BECAUSE of years of male centrism and patriarchy, but I think Suspiria stays away from this topic specifically because it’s simply a question that can only be posed in theory. The real interesting commentary in Suspiria is about gender, and more specifically, it’s fluidity. This does tie into the fact that gender is something that, in the eyes of the film, does not matter when it comes to it’s vices, evils, and morals. It’s more a humanist sentiment of ‘no matter who or what you are, humankind at this point will always be predisposed to fall into these trappings’. But then, you begin to notice a few choice things about HOW Suspiria depicts is femininity. For one, there is the obvious example of Tilda Swinton’s three performances, as Blanc, Markos, and Josef. Showing the two opposing sides of the coven being played by the same actress is certainly an interesting choice, but not as interesting as having the film’s only main male character be played by a woman, and not only that, but CREDITED as a man. The little media circus surrounding the ambiguity of Josef’s character is amusing, but as the film does take on a very multifaceted thematic approach, you have to wonder, was there another reason to do this other than just to see if they could?
When I saw the film a second time, once we had been driving a while, I turned to my friend and began to discuss my interpretation of the film, the one mentioned above about fascism and artistic purity. After explaining my thoughts, he nodded, and told me that his interpretation was that the film was, primarily, about ‘the suffering of women’, and that made me think about a whole lot of things.
I believe this interpretation is incredibly valid, and maybe the first and foremost interpretation of the film. This mainly comes into play with the character of Josef, who investigates the dance studio. The dilemma his character seems to be faced with is that he is a man that relies so much on rationality he is unable to confront that which he perceives to be beyond his understanding. This is shown mainly through the fact that we are eventually told his that he and his wife lost one another when fleeing the regime, and his wife, whose fate is unknown until Susie reveals it to him, dies because they didn’t leave in time even though Anke supposedly warned him about what was happening. This is again reinforced by his refusal to believe in something he doesn’t fully understand when the girl fleeing the dance company tells him they’re witches, he says her experience is more than likely valid, but that couldn’t be what is going on. When Susie’s roommate confronts him, he says the same thing again. Taking this character and making him confront something that does seem quite impossible, the existence of witches and witchcraft, and making that a metaphor around the dilemma of men not believing women on a universal scale, I think speaks volumes to not only the thought and care placed into Josef’s construction, but is something very necessary for the time we live in. The United States is seeing a rise in home-grown fascist support right now under an administration that is resembling a dictatorship more and more as the days go on. We’re also in the midst of a movement entirely around the oppression of women and the voice of women, so using a horror film like Suspiria to showcase these ideas to be as terrifying as reality is something that I think is worth consideration. It’s not just an amalgamate of random ideas, it’s a pretty chilling reflection of modernity even though the film takes place forty years ago.
PART FIVE: “WE NEED GUILT AND SHAME, BUT NOT YOURS,”
The above mentioned line is something said by Susie near the end of the film to Josef, right after she mentions what really happened to Josef’s wife. I think it was at this moment his subplot and placement in the film became entirely clear for me. Not only is Josef the emotional crux of the narrative and the audience surrogate, he’s the core of what the film is trying to say. Susie says this to imply that guilt and shame are necessary for change, for oppressed women to take their rightful stance as equals with all of humanity, but only from parties that which deserve both guilt and shame. Josef was never ill-intended, he clearly loved his wife a great deal, and misses her very much, when he thinks she’s returned it’s evident he’s overcome with joy, but yet, despite his intentions and despite being a good man, he did not believe his wife, and she paid for it. He didn’t believe the dancers either, and they paid for it, resulting in Susie herself having to grant them absolution through death and an end to their suffering. Without Josef the film simply does not work, it has no emotional pathos, his reaction and his witnessing of the ritual at the end are because the witches needed a witness, and blamed him for not believing women. His entire reaction to the end and being lead away from it all, I see him as a stand in for all of us, being exposed to shear insanity and rattled so deeply it leaves us all shaking. The sentiment that we need the guilt and shame of those who actually harbor deeds to be guilty of and things to be shameful of is an indictment of the people and establishments who oppress whomever is in question, it’s these power structures and toxic people we need to demand justice from. People like Josef have to live with the consequences of what they’ve done, he has to live without his wife which causes him great amounts of pain, his shame, his guilt, it is for no one other than himself. Those who have felt the result of fascism, of patriarchy, of systems stacked against them, they do not need him to repent, they need those responsible for suffering, those who are complacent like Josef should suffer consequences, but his brand of guilt it one that is not necessary for growth or change, it is only through finding those who are truly guilty pay for what they’ve done where we find progress, where we can break the bonds of oppression and fascism. And how is this done? Through art, of course. The means of combating the establishment. Sending a message. You have to make people witness what you say, you need an audience, you need someone to listen and to think and to be moved. The problem with the coven was that they used Josef as a witness out of misplaced anger. Josef paid for what he did through years of loneliness and suffering a loss that was obviously terrible to him, their anger is indeed righteous, but was simply aimed at the wrong target. Using him as their witness got them nowhere, and it would’ve got them nothing without Susie, for that matter. Josef does learn his lesson in the end, but the narrative focuses on him to tell us exactly the kind of people who aren’t deserving of this treatment. His guilt, his shame, it is only necessary for him, the guilt and the shame of the wicked, of the tyrants, of the leaders who are dishonest, leaders like Markos, it’s them we must demand our recompense from. It does not excuse Josef’s wrongdoings by any means, but it shows us that, in the greater scheme of things, our own personal tolls we must pay are our own, and we cannot expect anything to come from these things. A message that, especially right now, is something I think a lot of people could stand to learn.
PART SIX: “WHEN YOU DANCE THE DANCE OF ANOTHER,”
The above line is spoken by Madame Blanc near the beginning of the film, and it’s a quote that really stayed with me. I think there’s a lot of material here about the very nature of remaking someone’s art and what a piece of work can mean when redrawn from the mind of another creator.
Guadagnino has said that the version of Suspiria he created was the one he imagined in his head after he saw Argento’s original as a kid. This, in my humble opinion, is the ideal way anyone should approach a remake. He elaborated on the mythology, the details that stuck out to him and were more interesting to him, and while I do love Argento’s version, I cannot lie, it seems Luca and I both found the same things from the original film interesting. Not only that, but I feel Luca’s approach resulted in him remaking the entire trilogy of films Suspiria belonged to in one film. Which, is nice, seeing as both Inferno and Mother of Tears are movies that are universally regarded as being… not… good. It’s a funny thing that he took this approach, as mentioned earlier, this film resembles the original in mostly concept and name only. I feel it improves marginally by being a film that doesn’t rely on a mystery like the original, where the audience is already ten steps ahead of the characters so the reveals aren’t much of a surprise, as well as injecting a fair amount of actual character into the film. One difference isn’t even really a difference, but just lies in emphasis. There’s sort of a culture around Suspiria, the original, that deeply analyzes the film to have a whole lot of thematic depth that even those who analyze it recognize it may not have been entirely intentional, so Luca went and made some of these… intentional, to put in simply. I always felt the original was a bit light on depth for my liking, even though I could enjoy it on a purely visual level, it’s just that the characters and lack of a real definitive point always left me feeling a bit hollow, and the interpretations of the original I’ve read that assign it a lot of depth feel a BIT too much like reaching, though I’m sure this analysis itself could be seen similarly.
In a film that is about art, I was looking for a place where Luca would place as a sort of self-insert for his own stance on it, and upon second viewing, I think I found it. I think he’s very much aware of how intimidating, dense, and showy the film is, and as a result, creates a very interesting contrast at the end of the film. You’d think that Luca would be speaking through the voice of Susie, or the voice of artistic purity, right? Well, I don’t think so. I think Luca’s self insert character is Helena Markos.
See, the original Suspiria is often described as being ‘cinema as trash as cinema’ in the sense that it’s ‘low’ art in the guise of ‘high’ art, and I think this new film does the exact same thing. I think Luca absolutely 100-percent is aware of what he is doing here, for one specific reason and one specific scene. We get a lot of ostentatious directors making films that are ostensibly critiques of art, and thus by extension, themselves. This year we got ‘The House that Jack Built’ by Lars Von Trier which is a nihilistic, violent, self indulgent meditation on art and murder, as well as Von Trier’s relationship with it. Another example that stems to mind is ‘Synecdoche New York’ (to be perfectly frank, every single Charlie Kaufman film is a self critique, but that’s the best example of one) where artists explore their relationship with themselves, with their art, and with everyone else. Seeing as Suspiria is a film that I read to be strongly interwoven with art and the artistic process, I figured there *might* be something there where he may have thought ‘what can I say about myself, as well as what I make?’ And what better place to do this than the incredibly obtuse, visually catastrophic, hideously and tastelessly violent ending sequence.
Helena Markos’s most significant declaration in the scene is yelling ‘Look at this. This is art’
I chalked it up to self-awareness earlier, and I think that plays into what the film is getting at to be certain, but how exactly? Why would Luca paint himself as a relic of tradition and an artistic fraud? Well for one I think it’s just a sign of good faith. A sign that he knows this is going to be a weird and divisive film and he wants you to know he’s well-aware of this display of self-indulgence. Now, why would I say that? Like most parts of the film, I think we see the answer through Josef’s inclusion. His placement at the ritual is purely because they needed a witness, and Josef was convenient because they knew he had been investigating them. They also do accuse him of not believing women, and as established, this is a sin I think Josef has already paid for with the loss of a loved one, so his biggest role to play at the end is watching the abomination that both a history of fascism and tyrannical male rule created. This destructive and passionate art that is born from a place of both inspiration and of malice. His only line in the scene is ‘there are plenty men in Berlin more guilty than I’ and upon first glance I simply thought this was a desperate plea from a flawed man, but on second viewing, he’s absolutely correct. This does tie into the theme of desiring the guilt and shame of those who deserve it, but I think it’s also to create contrast. When Markos says her line about the ritual being art, she does so in this beautiful wide shot showing everything in the chamber as if to say ‘look at what I made, look at this unruly mess’ and this statement is important, because it’s masking the real horror.
The real horror is that a lonely, elderly man has been stripped naked and kidnapped forced to watch something that could only be conceived in a nightmare, and the scene barely features him at all. It steals his voice, his suffering, his pain. Josef losing his wife in the Holocaust is a story that in any other context, would be the real horror of a given piece of work. But Luca instead makes this man weak, he strips him, takes away his input, almost as if to say: ‘I can make my indulgent art/horror film more of a spectacle through the power of film more horrifying than a man who lost the love of his life and thought that she was back, only to be tricked’ Essentially, this is the film that shows the dangers of art as a whole, almost a cautionary tale as to how it can be used or even mishandled. I think that’s why the epilogue focuses on Josef, erasing his memory and giving him closure is not only the newfound coven atoning for what they had done, but it’s almost an act of penance from the director and writer, as if to say: “this movie should’ve been about you,” Again, this is obviously something that is contentious and easily dismissed because of its strange levels of utter absurdity, and you can chalk it up to Luca being sloppy or unfocused or even pretentious, but I have a counter thought to the mindset. Luca isn’t showing us the horror of how HE can eclipse real tragedy with art, but instead how ART can be used to eclipse tragedy. His point isn’t that he could do it, it’s that anyone can.
PART SEVEN: DAVID BOWIE AND PRISMATIC THEMING
Okay, this is the home stretch. The final thoughts and overall thesis of my collective ideas and interpretation of the film, so naturally the title of this section is going to seem weird. What does Bowie have to do with this? What the hell is ‘Prismatic Theming’? (and depending on whether or not you agree with me or read my thoughts as valid: “Are you ever going to shut up?) But no worries, it makes enough sense to me, so I’ll do my best here.
So, let’s address my favorite musical artist, David Bowie.
I remember in my second viewing, a poster in one of the girl’s rooms caught my eye. It was a David Bowie poster. Being the person I am being obsessed with film and music, immediately this stood out to me. Bowie was what we now label as a ‘transgressive artist’ (or a ‘postmodernist’ if you wanna get academic and snooty) which is someone who seemed to embody societal taboos and uses their art as a way of commenting on them. For the longest while, Bowie was a sex symbol. Not even necessarily in that he was seen as being sexually appealing, but he was a model of sexual freedom. His sexuality was utterly indefinable, not only based on observation of his love life, but by the man himself. He didn’t label himself, straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, nothing. His sexuality was people. And as such, Bowie also became a contemporary portrait for gender expression and fluidity. He would embody masculinity when he saw fit, and femininity when it suited him, but for the most part, he just did whatever he wanted. He used his androgyny to inform his art as well as how people saw him. So, obviously, the inclusion of the Bowie poster in the room is a nice little nod to some of the themes that it touches on, seeing as I think the film does take a very genderfluid stance on art and fascism. It’s neat that they thought enough to find an artist that embodied that… but then I dug deeper.
Turns out, in earlier versions of the script, some of the girls actually WENT to a David Bowie concert, but this was cut out for unknown reasons. This got me thinking, that Bowie was, in fact, more tangentially related that I gave him credit for.
If you know anything else about Bowie, it’s that the man spent his early days living a life of excess. He had money, fame, drugs, women, men, and he indulged in it all. This did eventually lead to some consequences though, as David’s mental health deteriorated as his drug use and haze of debauchery clouded his life. For awhile he suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as Multiple Personality Disorder just because of the disarray his brain was in. He then channeled this into his art by taking on several different characters and personas. One of the most obvious from his classic album, Ziggy Stardust, but some people don’t know there were others as well. One of his characters was called ‘The Thin White Duke’ and I’ll give you one guess as to what Bowie wanted to do with this character.
He wanted to critique and satirize Fascism.
The Thin White Duke was a character who was explicitly fascist and evil. In fact, Bowie spent several years in the 70s as a pariah of sort because his embodiment of his personas became like method acting, as well as drugs which were no help to him, so it lead to him being in character saying a lot of controversial shit and people didn’t know whether or not to take it seriously. Then, in 1976, he released an album called ‘Station to Station’ (a personal favorite of mine) where he entirely played the part of the Duke for the entire duration of the album, which was satire that was made due to the current political climate in Europe being in the post-Berlin Wall divide. A lot of people believe that Suspiria 2018 was set in 1977 because that was the year the original came out, and that very well may be a factor, but there are a few distinct other reasons this specific time period was chosen, I’d think. So, Station to Station was released in 1976, meaning when Bowie was on tour in 1977, he would’ve been playing and performing music FROM Station to Station, meaning that Susie would have visited a concert where someone with a fluid sexual identity, an excessively indulgent lifestyle, was using music to parody fascism, feeding into the theme that Susie’s transformation and takeover of the coven came from inspiration to destroy what corrupted it, ie, fascism. Not ONLY this, but Bowie was making a lot of music in the 70s, but a year after Station to Station, the year the movie is set, Bowie released a trilogy of albums that were called ‘The Berlin Trilogy’ which, is about as on the nose as you can possibly get. This also parallels how Susie saw Madame Blanc perform when she was a child, thus inspiring her to further pursue her dream, this performance could be seen as not only driving Susie to pursue her passion, but also controlling it, in a way.
Something else of note, I think it’s no mistake that Thom Yorke, the frontman of Radiohead was tapped to do the soundtrack here. Other than being wonderful music that delivers exactly what you would expect from Radiohead doing music for Suspiria, I think he was chosen for one very key reason, that being, he was an immense fan of David Bowie, as well as delivering backup vocals for one of his more recent albums, meaning he was a collaborator. He’s often said that Bowie’s music inspired him to have a career in music, and knowing this, I’m of two minds. One, Thom Yorke was picked to do the soundtrack because, like Susie in the deleted portion of the script, he was inspired deeply by David Bowie, who acts as a tentpole for the film’s themes, specifically about art. Two, this film has been in production a good while, and Bowie only died two years ago, so I think it would honestly be a fairly safe bet that they would’ve approached Bowie himself to potentially do the music, but due to his passing, they were unable, so Yorke being a massive fan of his was the next best thing. Intentional or no, it’s a fascinating artistic parallel.
So ‘prismatic theming’.
This is not a real academic term. I made it up to describe how I see the film as a whole, and it’s ironically how I view Bowie as a whole, him being my favorite musician led me to think a lot about his music. I’ll try to explain this in a way that doesn’t sound like reaching or nonsense, so hear me out. David Bowie was someone who used his art to comment on a whole lot of things, which is part of what made him so ahead of the curve from a musical standpoint. And Suspiria 2018, in all of it’s unruly yet somehow cohesive messiness, is doing exactly what Bowie did, just in a different media. Bowie is the lens we can view this all from. He embodies EVERY theme, every idea this film has to a degree that borders on shocking. Sexuality, art, fascism, fluidity, indulgence, hedonism, inspiration, all these ideas exist within one man and were made explicit with his art. You can argue of course that Bowie’s career is more cohesive than the film, and I can’t tell you you’re wrong, even if i think it’s not very fair to directly compare one piece of art to another in a totally different medium, I’m simply saying they have the same goals rather than the same execution. But what is about Bowie that made it all feel natural, an insane, but also perfectly logical progression? Well, that’s where our ‘prism’ comes in. Not only does Suspiria adopt a lot of ideas Bowie had used, it adopts the way each style and theme interacts with the other. Imagine you’re looking at an object contained within a glass prism. Each pane of glass is a different color, and when you examine it closely, not only does the object itself look different because you switched the angle at which you’re looking at it, but the colors of the other panes of glass make the object appear a slightly different color than if it was *just* that one specific pane. What I mean here is that when you examine Bowie’s music through each lens of criticism he invited, you’d get a different result. What happens when you examine the Thin White Duke’s philosophy of fascism in his music not from a fascist lens, but instead a feminist one? Well you can inherently draw parallels to how femininity is oppressed under the regime of a patriarchy, which exposes a different element than just examining the Duke’s philosophy ONLY through fascism. I think Suspiria does the exact same thing. Yes, it crams a lot of different themes in there, and on first glance I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking it to be a mess, because in many ways I think it is, but beyond this mess, it allows you to examine all of it’s themes through one another, exposing something you may not have originally thought about if the theme had been there by itself. It is a movie that, by design, is built for you to look at what it’s saying about all of its subjects and examine them under different lenses of theory. It is built to be both a puzzle box that proves itself rewarding for those who it engaged in a way where they wanted to understand it more, and also as a raw, visceral, cinematic nightmare that does indeed benefit from being an overwhelming and monolithic opus that may connect with people like my friend or Nyx Fears purely on the merit of being something that simply cannot be replicated, nor will it be, because it’s brand of chaos is all it’s own.
I guess if there’s one sentiment I actively resent when I see people discuss the film, and art in general, it’s that the movie ‘didn’t say anything’ or used it’s elements as ‘window-dressing to make you feel like it’s important’ and not only do I fundamentally disagree with both these statements, I think they’re a bit hollow and presumptuous. You can of course level criticism at something for what it says or how it says it, but to level that critique here? In a film that clearly has so many running motifs and emblematic ideas, the likes of which I’m only beginning to uncover because I only saw it once, and to declare it empty? I dunno, that feels a bit reductionist to me. Now if the style didn’t work for you, if you found it laborious, not exceptionally well-paced, or it simply doesn’t sit with you, I understand that, or maybe you already know all of what I said and still don’t like it because of the execution, that’s also fair, but I think Suspiria 2018 is special. It’s a 2 and a half hour long horror magnum opus made by someone riding out the high of their artistic career, filled to the brim with ideas that are still startlingly relevant, but it sacrifices nothing in my eyes because it still works as just a thrilling, entertaining, unique horror experience that left me shaking. But the dismissiveness that comes from just saying the film is pretentious or edgy purely for the sake of itself… it feels almost dishonest to me, not to invalidate the experiences of others, but I do think that saying this film is shallow is about as close to ‘wrong’ as someone can be when discussing art. It’s a mess for sure, a mess that somehow it finds both charm and pride in, a self-indulgent mess, but it’s a mess with a lot going for it, it’s all a matter of whether or not you engaged with it, at the end of the day. And Suspiria 2018, definitely, absolutely, 100 percent engaged with me on every level possible.
“I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring,”
MacNeal, May. “Suspiria and Cinematic Chaos.” Review of Film. Www.youtube.com, www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2UzI557Lgw&t=1s.
Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “The ‘Mother’ of All Horror Movies: Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977).” Review of Film.
Polyphonic. “The Thin White Duke: David Bowie's Darkest Character.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Apr. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofeSZJJ_fxQ.
“Who Were Germany's Red Army Faction Militants?” BBC News, BBC, 19 Jan. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35354812.