HEAT VISION

What Is 'Suspiria' Trying to Say?

There are plots behind plots in director Luca Guadagnino's version of the horror film.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
There are plots behind plots in director Luca Guadagnino's version of the horror film.

[This story contains spoilers for Suspiria]

Suspiria — i.e., the new film with that title — is the smartest kind of dumb movie, the kind whose plot is intricate without being complex. Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have made a vague, ornate “cover version” (Guadagnino’s words) of Dario Argento’s nightmarish 1977 film, but to what end? This Suspiria — which follows precocious American ballerina student Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) as she becomes the star pupil of the Markos Dance Co. and its secret witch-y coven — makes vague references to the Holocaust, the Cold War, the Red Army Faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. But untangling the new movie’s plot feels like a fool’s errand given how soul-less and drab the film is.

Yet, unraveling the Markos Dance Co.'s Byzantine, supernatural conspiracy narrative is essential to understanding the film’s bigger, albeit half-formed ideas. There are literally rooms behind rooms within the Markos academy, and several plots within plots: Sometimes we see young dancers rehearsing while listening to other characters conspiring together offscreen (through voiceover narration) or in another space or time (through cross-cutting). Tilda Swinton, playing the bewitching dance choreographer Madame Blanc, schemes to wrest control of the school from the sickly and often off-camera Helena Markos (again, Swinton). Meanwhile, psychotherapist Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf, who is also really Swinton) investigates the disappearance of his patient, Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Guadagnino and Kajganich repeatedly remind us of their Suspiria’s thematic concern with doubling, mirroring, false fronts and other sorts of misdirection. A spell is cast that creates an implicit connection/parallel between one dancer’s frenzied expression of creativity with another’s physical suffering: Susie builds up steam as she rehearses a difficult Pina Bausch-style dance routine while another dancer, in a hidden room, dances alone until her bones break and her body contorts into a Cirque du Soleil-level pretzel. That scene is belabored and unmoving because Guadagnino doesn’t seem to be interested in torturing Susie’s foil… even though he devotes an unseemly amount of time to doing just that. This is where calling your movie Suspiria starts to look like a very bad idea: Argento’s movie is viscerally upsetting while Guadagnino and Kagjanich’s film is pompous and affected. RogerEbert.com’s Glenn Kenny characteristically hits the nail on the head when he wrote: “Whatever you think of Argento’s Suspiria, or his work overall, you have to admit that his morbid sadism appears to arise from an authentic impulse.”

Guadagnino and Kajganich also make so many surface-level parallels between historic signifiers that I can’t help but second the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis when she dismisses the film’s tellingly empty-headed stress on the Berlin Wall: “The wall is strictly ornamental, an emblem of meaning by (hoped for) association.” I also agree with New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s comparison of the new Suspiria’s appropriation of political symbols to a “designer Che T-shirt”: “The earlier [Suspiria] already suggested a gory matriarchy that destructively perpetuates its hermetic and secretive reign. But in the new film, the tinsel-trove of historical and political themes have the odd effect of subordinating those female-centered themes to a blandly familiar grab bag of sensationalistic headlines, which Guadagnino dangles in a manner that’s both bombastic (stretching to nearly two and a half lugubrious hours) and trivializing (because they are merely affixed to characters as traits).”

The makers of the new Suspiria offer an underdeveloped, pseudo-Jungian understanding of how historical events kinda/sorta overshadow their protagonists’ lives. It’s a film about unprocessed emotions and the deep nesting of trauma whose ideas feel equally unrefined and repressed, despite muted displays of gore and rococo opulence. The color has literally been sucked out of Suspiria’s West Berlin, which is definitely some kind of statement. Still, I can’t help but echo Time’s Stephanie Zacharek when she says that the new Suspiria “could all be OK, maybe, if Guadagnino, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and production designer Inbal Weinberg had chosen a more vibrant color palette: While it’s their right to rethink Argento’s version as they like, does anyone really want to see a beige Suspiria?”

Markos’ group wants revenge and vindication for the collective feelings of helplessness and resentment that they were left with after men like Klemperer dismissed them for being “delusional” (which Klemperer applies a folksy definition to: “a lie that tells the truth”). But what exactly were these women delusional about? Something about the Nazis, given Klemperer’s attempts at remembering his missing wife (who tried to flee the country against his wishes, but was captured and killed)? There’s also whispers about reproductive rights: a Markos student tells Susie that Blanc encouraged other German women to open their minds and close their legs.

But who exactly does Blanc’s “Volk” dance — performed by Susie but supposedly conceived by Blanc in 1948 — condemn? Its title is already provocative since “volk” means “people.” But do we really want to condescend to the Germans’ victims by assuming that the Nazis and their German followers all fell under a Caligari-like spell that tricked them into becoming mass-murdering, anti-Semitic fascists? Who’s the real villain in the new Suspiria? Is it Klemperer, because he represents a doddering, emasculated sort of patriarchal figure? Or maybe it’s Markos and Blanc’s followers, since they were, as the film’s convoluted twist suggests, blindly worshipping a false goddess. If the answer is a vague and defensive “both,” why are we going back in time to condemn the Germans for unprocessed guilt and a latent, unresolved desire for fascism?

It’s not necessarily a bad idea to use a gory horror movie as a vehicle for an ahistorical conceit that’s as loaded and provocative as: Postwar German women wanted to castrate their WW2 collaborator husbands for not having listened to their protests and shrugged off their emotions about reproductive rights and/or Nazis. But that becomes a bad idea when so much depends on plot points that are insinuated instead of exposited. A lot of the film’s meaning is established during Susie’s conversations with Madame Blanc (like when Susie cynically asks Blanc why people think things won’t get worse, though it’s unclear what historical events she’s referring to, or what people don’t anticipate them). There’s also a lot of weight put on scenes where Klemperer talks about his wife since he ultimately plays an arcane role in the witch’s scheme: He’s called a “witness,” but what exactly he sees is unclear, apart from a convoluted plot where young women are punished sadistically for propping up their misleading, pseudo-radical foremothers. Klemperer, Susie and Blanc’s stories simply aren’t strong enough to bear that sort of ponderous thematic weight.

I mean, seriously, who, in this metaphor, are the three mothers/witches that Markos claims to be one of? Are they a Fates-like trinity that holistically represents the platonic ideal of fascism? Are they a concept willed into being by a Jungian collective unconscious that enslaves and hypnotizes its subjects into doing their bidding, because some ideas are too big to be the subject of individual wills, but rather a cyclical trend? Is this a theme that will be regurgitated and clarified in future sequels, where Guadagnino and his screenwriters art-house-splain the philosophical roots of fascism and terrorism that led to 9/11, possibly in a remake of Mother of Tears, the third and the worst of Dario Argento's original “Three Mothers” trilogy? And do we really need two more films to give historical events a more-oracular-than-truly-psychoanalytic reading, ones that, like the new Suspiria, diagnose the world with an incurable worship of fascistic radicalism?

Look, I got this kudzu of a reading from the film's narrative toilet, which is metaphorically backed up with loosey-goosey ideas. The real fascists are the three mothers/Nazis, who brainwashed their followers/male citizens into extending their lives/power, by betraying their wives/female citizens, by calling them "delusional,” and keeping them in their place while the real danger grew all around them (Fascism!), and became the scourge that was a divided Europe. Which is somehow a greater symbolic benchmark in mankind's ongoing downward spiral... than Nazi death camps? Is this movie really concerned with the Nazis’ legacy, or did Guadagnino and Kajganich realize that they couldn't make a hip/grim Argento remake about the Holocaust? Is that why his movie is the way it is? 

As you can tell, I’m at a bit of a loss. I can, however, tell you why I think Suspiria is a bore to watch and to think about: because its wispy ideas are about as potent and flavorful as a six-pack of Bud Light Lime. Repeated viewings may tease out more details and therefore get you more drunk on the film’s specious Ideas. But good googly moogly, why not just watch another art house horror movie about Nazi-related guilt and the erasure of history? I recommend the excellent 2016 Polish vampire/dybbuk story Demon. It’ll derange your senses and give you a smarter reading on historical events than this new Suspiria ever will.

  • Simon Abrams
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