Suspiria (2018): Six Responses and an Epilogue

Last Saturday night, after an exhausting week of work and the onset of the kind of tiredness that seems to burrow deep into your bones, I grabbed an oversized blanket, curled up on my couch and finally watched Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Suspiria. Although my tiredness may have been conducive to my immersion in the surreal, dreamscape of Guadagnino’s film, it wasn’t particularly conducive to note-taking or the construction of a coherent analysis of the film. The impression it left on me was certainly more emotive and visceral than cerebral or analytical. I’m sure that I will watch it again soon, but until I do, I’ve decided to embrace and reflect the fragmentary structure of a film that is itself broken into what the title cards announce as “Six Acts and an Epilogue Set in a Divided Berlin.” Rather than attempting to compile a single, cogent narrative, I’ve decided to retain the fragmentary, inchoate nature of my original impression of the film and present this post as six responses and an epilogue.

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1. The Fallacy of Fidelity

Ever since George Bluestone published his highly influential study Novels into Film in 1957, there has been a recalcitrant tendency amongst both scholars and casual viewers to assess the quality of cinematic adaptations based on their ability to replicate the tone, narrative structure and characterisation of the source material. Treating the original iteration of the work as a culturally sacrosanct urtext, this type of “fidelity criticism” invariably positions adaptations, remakes and reimagings as pale reflections of an invariably more complex and artistically ambitious original. I’ve always found this paradigm troubling. If, as postmodernist theory would have us believe, every text is an intertext – a tissue of diverse textual citations – then the notion of original and replication is a simplistic approach to the analysis of entities that are rarely wholly original or wholly derivative.

Dario Argento’s 1977 film is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of Italian horror cinema. It is one of my favourite films and served as my entry point to both Euro-horror and the giallo subgenre. However, it is itself a complex latticework of literary, artistic and philosophical influences. Drawing on everything from Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis to childhood fairytales, Argento’s film is overtly engaged in an extended cinematic conversation with earlier horror and fantasy texts. Notions of both fidelity and originality are therefore rarely simple, and they often challenge our existing notions of textual production and reproduction. Moreover, judging Guadagnino’s film as nothing more than a replication of Argento’s serves only to limit our understanding of what a remake can be by categorising it as nothing more than an act of repetition.

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The muted palette of Guadagnino’s film is a world away from the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of Argento’s films. 

2. Contextualisation and Decontextualisation

The Suspiria of Dario Argento is radically different from the Suspiria of Luca Guadagnino. Thinking of the films in the context of the morbid dance metaphors that they both employ, it is as though Guadagnino has removed the essential skeletal framework of Argento’s original, enchanted it and set it in motion so that it may dance to its own infernal tune. Suspiria (1977) is very much a film devoid of historical, and maybe even cultural, specificity. Here, Suzy Bannion arrives in Germany, an American abroad. After existing the sanitised, neon-lit safety of the airport she tumbles, like Alice, into a strange, nightmarish wonderland. In crossing the geographical divide between America and Europe, she also crosses the divide between reality and fantasy. The Germany of Argento’s film is the Germany of the Grimms’ fairy tales: filled with wicked witches, beautiful maidens and houses resembling elaborate gingerbread concoctions decorated with fine, delicate icing.

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The fantasy architecture of Argento’s Suspiria (1977)

Guadagnino’s Suspira is firmly grounded in the specificity of both its geographical location and its historical moment. In this version, Susie Bannion arrives in a Germany torn in two, infected by paranoia and suspicion; a tinderbox on the verge of ignition. Suspiria (2018) is set in 1977, the same year that the original was released, but rather than inhabiting the liminal space of a dark, enchanted forest, this film takes place in Cold-War Berlin, where the eponymous Wall runs through the city like a scar, a wound inscribed in grey concrete. That the film itself depicts not only witchcraft as a clandestine organisation operating in the heart of an anxiety-ridden city, but also an enchanted dance that tears the performers’ bodies to pieces, clearly bespeaks the masochistic violence of a city at war with itself.

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Suspiria (2018) takes place in the conspicuous shadow of the Berlin Wall

3. Traumatic Injuries: The Unburied Past

Guadagnino’s Suspiria is an undoubtedly violent film. Its violence, however, differs dramatically from the violence of Argento’s 1977 original. Like many entries in the giallo canon, and seventies horror in general, Argento’s film is vivid not only in its lighting and set design but in its gore. The blood that splashes across the scenery of the 1977 version is shockingly bright, viscous and potent. It perfectly embodies the fairy-tale themes and iconography that dominate the film. In the 2018 remake, injuries and bodily ruptures are expressed in more realistic, even forensic detail. Indeed, bodily injury is a key thematic and imaginative motif throughout the film. Bones are broken; bodies are twisted and deformed; organs are penetrated, exposed and extracted. However, despite the ubiquity of these physical injuries, Guadagnino’s film seems primarily concerned with the psychic wounds inflicted upon twentieth-century Germany. Indeed, in many places these physical injuries, their exposure of the body’s hidden infrastructures and secret fluids, appear to echo the painful process of addressing psychologically traumatic national wounds. The spectres of Nazism and the Second World War hang eternally and ominously above Guadagnino’s Berlin. The rupture of the Cold War and the scarification of the Berlin Wall may serve as apparent reminders of war, fascism, and division, but buried deep within the psyches of Berlin’s inhabitants, echoes of the Holocaust and the Nazi death machine remain as a traumatic realities that must be repressed in order to survive in the new post-war world. The Jewish psychoanalyst Dr. Josef Klemperer compares the rites and insignia of witchcraft to the grandiose political rituals practised by the Third Reich. This, of course, recalls not only the perennial historical association between Nazism and the occult, but the notion of an ancient coven of witches hiding in the midst of post-war Berlin also suggests that the monstrosity of Nazism has not been obliterated. Instead, it is simply hiding, a dark memory lingering beneath the surface of the modern world. Like all such trauma, when it remerges, it does so in a kinetic hail of violence and fanaticism. The visceral heart of Suspiria is possibly found in the dance performance at its core. The performance is a piece called Volk, and it is no accident that the concept of “Volk” (meaning “people, both uncountable in the sense of people as in a crowd, and countable in the sense of a people as in an ethnic group or nation”) was a key component of Nazi political nationalism. The power of dance is Suspiria seems to hearken back to a potent, repressed past.

Cathy Caruth, the pre-eminent theorist of trauma, has famously described the experience of being traumatised as akin to possession: to be traumatised is to be possessed by an image, a sensation, a memory. The Berlin of 1977, as it is depicted in Suspiria, is a city possessed by memories. The phantom of Nazism looms dark and foreboding over the snow-covered city, over every apartment block and grey, concrete office building. The horror of the Reich has metamorphosed, transformed: it expresses itself in occult rituals and the viciousness of secret covens. Yet, it persists and its memory is capable of catching hold of those who inhabit the physical space of its former domain. Throughout the film, the girls who attend the Tanz Dance Academy lose control of their bodies. They are consumed by the primal energy of the dance and are manipulated like puppets, dolls, occult icons. Here, the power of something ancient and hidden to take control of living bodies, to propel them with force and rent them asunder, clearly suggests the power of the past to possess the present and propel it towards destruction.

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The central performance of Volk

4. “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate”: The Abject Body, or Intensifying Argento’s Motifs

The above quote comes from the frantic, incoherent ramblings of Patricia Hingle, a young girl who escapes the academy to the ostensible safety of kindly psychoanalyst Josef Klemperer. In her mind, the witches who inhabit the Tanz Academy are cannibalistic harpies, intent on devouring her both literally and figuratively. Suspiria (2018) is gruesome and preoccupied with depicting anatomically precise mutilations of the human body. When Sara breaks her leg, the white ivory of her bone pierces her fragile skin, rendering visible what should have remained invisible and confined to the interior of the body. Likewise, when Olga is possessed by Susie’s dance, forced to violently mimic her movements, her body is left battered and bruised by the force of her movements. Her limbs are twisted and broken, and the shock of her violent mutilation causes her to urinate on the floor. In both of these scenes, as well as in many others brutal set pieces where viscera, blood and other fluids are released from the protective casing of the external body, the film brings to the fore a type of horror known as the abject. As defined by the theorist Julia Kristeva, the abject is that which “does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” While moral and cultural taboos are frequently defined as abject, in horror literature and film the abject is often closely associated with bodily violation, with the proliferation of blood and other fluids. Blood, urine, the protrusion of bone are unsettling for a number of reasons, but the main source of their power to horrify resides in their ability to cross borders and annihilate identificatory categories. Blood, excrement, vomit: these things remind us in an extremely confrontational manner that we human beings are in reality little more than bodies, vulnerable permeable bodies whose physicality may be penetrated and corrupted. We are objects open to destruction, mutilation and corrosion.

In his use of abject horror, Guadagnino draws upon and develops some of the key thematic and iconographic preoccupations of Argento’s filmography. Abject horror abounds in Argento’s Suspiria, where a body is pierced by barbed wire and a heart cut, still beating, from an open chest cavity. However, this preoccupation is not limited to Suspiria. It appears in other films and notably expresses itself the ubiquity of blood and other bodily fluids found in works like Deep Red.

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5. “Welcome to Our Little Family”: Motherhood and Monstrosity

The abject regularly manifests in horror cinema in the form of blood, violent slayings, bodily corrosion, leakages and haemorrhages. Yet, according to Kristeva and subsequent scholars of horror, one of the primary forms of the abject is the maternal figure, the mother who becomes abject as the child struggles to break away from her all-encompassing physical and psychological presence. As the child grows from the non-verbal stage of infancy where it is enveloped in the immense presence of her body, depending on her and receiving nourishment at her breast, to the verbal stage of childhood, it seeks to reject the power of the maternal body. The mother, associated with nourishment, bodily fluids and the primal realm of pre-linguistic infancy is rendered abject, a monstrous figure who threatens to draw the child back to this primitive space.

Monstrous mothers proliferate throughout Suspiria. The film’s mythos speaks of the three primal witch mothers: Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum and Mater Lachrymarum. Inhabiting a dark sepulchrous space beneath the academy, Mater Suspiriorum is the ostensible antagonist of Suspiria, seeking to drag the girls who attend the school into her dark primeval space. In the final scene, a grand guignol of ecstatic dance and brutal evisceration, a hidden room beneath the school (tellingly referred to as the Mütterhaus) is transformed in a profusion of blood and mutilated bodies into brilliant red womb space. Intriguingly, when Susie is brought into the inner sanctum of the Mütterhaus her purpose is to serve as a new vessel for the decrepit elder witch Mother Markos. Her body, her agency will be annihilated in order to serve the will of an ancient, controlling maternal monster. The final horror of the film could therefore be said to represent the horror of reincorporation, the terror of being dragged back into the primal space of the maternal body.

In a very disturbing way, the coven at the Tanz Dance Academy functions as a family of sorts. We’re told that Sara has “made a home” at the school, and when Susie joins the academy she is welcomed “to our little family”. Family, then, in the context of Guadagnino’s film is a difficult, multi-faceted and often viscous entity. The women who form the coven clearly function as a family unit, yet their behaviour towards each other is competitive, cruel and often violent. At the same time, the young girls who attend the school – the daughters to these dark mothers – are figured as prey: bodies to be consumed and used for power or nourishment. It seems that in this case, the film offers a bleak view of familial structures. Susie flees the bleak expanses of the American Midwest and the repressive strictures of her Mennonite family for the freedom of bohemian Berlin, but the new family she finds there seems fundamentally comprised of haggard birds of prey who see her and her youthful cohorts as little more than carrion.

 

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6. “It felt like what it must feel like to fuck”: Adolescence, Womanhood and Growing Up

In Argento’s Suspiria the young dancers were originally intended to be played by pre-adolescent girls, an aspect of the film that certainly speaks to its fairy-tale origins. While this proved impractical and the dancers were eventually cast as young women in their late teens and early twenties, their speech and behaviour still retained an air of childish curiosity and immaturity. In the 2018 reimaging of the film, the dancers are played by young, but clearly adult, women. Although their speech does not echo the infantile dialogue of the original, there is nevertheless a childishness to them. Like many dancers, their bodies are slender, lithe and androgynous. They may be grown women but their position as “school girls” and their delicate frames create the illusion of a prolonged adolescence, as though they are frozen eternally on the brink of woman. This stasis is particularly evident in the case of Susie who, due to her strict religious upbringing and long red tresses, appears exceptionally innocent and naïve. There is, I think, an extent to which Suspiria (2018) is a coming-of-age film. Superficially, it certainly resembles this kind of narrative of self-actualisation: a sheltered yet exceptionally talented young girl from a rural community travels to the big city, she makes new friends, changes her style and realises her inner strength. Obviously, Guadagnino’s film is more complex than this, but the essential framework is there.

Suspiria, like many other horror texts centred on young women, literalises the trauma and upheaval of growth. Its internal metamorphoses and psychological tremors are given physical form through the uncanny visual lexicon of horror cinema. In such films, puberty becomes a monstrous mutation, the loss of virginity an act of voracious consumption. The disconcerting power of the gothic lends itself exceptionally well to the alienation and ambiguity of adolescence. In Guadagnino’s Suspiria Susie’s transformation from girl to woman comes about in images of disturbing bodily violence. While she is initially brought to the hidden sanctum of the academy to be used as a vessel for the ageing witch Mother Markos, Susie transforms the scene of her intended destruction and enervation into a panorama of violent rebirth. Revealing herself to be mythic Mater Suspiriorium, Susie tears open her chest cavity, constructing herself as a sort of perverse Virgin Mary, a twisted reconfiguration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In these final moments of the film, Susie has seemingly transformed herself from a delicate girl into a self-possessed and powerful woman. Yet, Guadagnino does not construct a Manichean binary between girl and woman. Mater Suspiriorium resided within Susie from the beginning, a potential and a power waiting to revealed. Susie’s journey is not the passage from weak, insecure girl to powerful woman. Rather, this power existed within in her from the outset, located in the hidden depths of her heart and awaiting the opportunity to manifest.

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Epilogue

More so than the frenetic, violent dances and the abject spectacle of Mater Suspiriorium tearing the bodies of undulating elderly witches to pieces, the scene that affected me most profoundly was Susie/Mater Suspiriorium’s visit to the elderly, bed-ridden Klemperer. In this moment of apparent compassion, the ancient mother tells him of his wife’s death at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She eases decades’ worth of suffering by telling the old man of his wife Anke’s final moments and by assuring him that her final thoughts were of her beloved husband. While I had initially interpreted the scene as expressing the necessity of recovering repressed memories, both cultural and individual, this revelation is followed by the erasure of Klemperer’s memories in a violent seizure provoked by the touch of Mater Suspiriorium. Consequently,  while Suspiria is set during the post-war period of de-Nazification, it cannot be definitively categorised as a work of Vergangenheitsbewältigung – that is a work preoccupied with “overcoming the past” or, in more specifically German terms, a work dealing with the process of coming to terms with the history of National Socialism and the HolocaustNevertheless, the film closes with an ambiguous shot in which a small piece of graffiti is shown, etched in the wood of Kempler’s home and caressed by patches of hazy sunlight, an evocation of his and Anke’s love. Moreover, this small engraving, carved in the organic form of a wooden house frame provides a stark contrast to the omnipresent Berlin Wall, an architectural memorial covered in angry scrawls which speaks not of love but of division and loss.

 

 

 

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