Guadagnino: Suspiria (2018)
Dario Argento’s Suspiria exudes such an intense and inimitable aesthetic that it’s not really possible to remake it, just as no subsequent viewing can rival the shock of first seeing it. As a result, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria doesn’t really play as an adaptation so much as a response to the original film, specifically a response to everything about the original film that seems to preclude any such response. For the ultimate register of Argento’s film is aesthetic finitude – a sense that his combination of sound, colour and movement has reached such a unique and original fusion that nothing further can be added to it, and indeed any attempt to add to it can only detract from it, a proposition that has been somewhat borne out by the diminishing returns of his own directorial filmography. As an exercise in countering aesthetic finitude, Guadagnino’s Suspiria thus feels like a film made for a world in which every filmic vision can sometimes seem to have been exhausted, and in which the very notion of film as an independent medium seems more dated with each year. In that respect, part of what ramifies now about Argento’s version is how dramatically it insists upon the visceral presence of the big screen to make its full impact felt, with the result that Guadagnino’s version also plays as a meditation on the finitude of even these most extravagant cinematic gestures in a world where small screens tend to predominate.
That pervasive sense of finitude makes its way into the 2018 Suspiria in two key ways, although they both depend upon the drastically expanded length of Guadagnino’s version. Whereas the original film was a mere ninety minutes, this version stretches beyond two and a half hours, although it never feels excessively long, partly because it is divided into six acts, which provide an internal rhythm and propulsion, and partly because the hypnotic and eerie atmosphere of the film as a whole tends to displace any regular notions of space and time. Against that backdrop, the story is quite similar to the original – a young American woman, Susie, played by Dakota Johnson, arrives at an exclusive dance studio in Berlin, where she gradually starts to realise that the women in charge, especially Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton, are members of an occult coven, and are using their dancers as vehicles for their witchcraft. Yet whereas Suzy is presented by Argento as an outsider who gradually figures out what is going on, Johnson’s Susie is integrated into the cult in a much more subliminal and unconscious way, resulting in an amazing slow build that makes the final two acts almost unbearably visceral and confronting in their orchestration of macabre violence.
Within that more distended space, Guadagnino elides the vivid colours of Argento’s original, replacing them with a muted, murky palette whose dominant tone is grey. With the action now set more explicitly in 1977, the year that the first film was made, all exterior space seems to be contained by perpetual rain and by the looming spectacle of the Berlin Wall, which sits right outside the studio. Suffusing even the cleanest and brightest surfaces with a pervasive dankness and dampness, and alternating between stone and fabric as the two main textural ingredients of his mise-en-scenes, Guadagnino devotes the first two acts of the film to spaces that are almost empty and objects that are almost incidental, only for a slight awryness – of composition, tone, focus – to imbue them with a significance that can’t yet be processed. The fact that Goblin’s prog rock score frequently overwhelms Argento’s images makes Thom Yorke’s score all the more visceral in turn for its modesty and minimalism – an appropriate soundtrack for a studio that prefers dancing without music – as it seems to leach rather than add colour to the few scenes that it accompanies, suffocating rather than breathing life into Guadagnino’s compositions. Whereas the bright blues and reds of the original mimicked a circulatory system, reoxygenating with each fresh scene, the blood in this film is more black than red – so muted and coagulated that it seems to clot the moment it becomes visible, imbuing all the dancers with an undeadness in turn.
That dankness and drabness of palette is intensified by the pervasive dimness, since Guadagnino never raises the light above a gloomy midwinter level. As a result, sources of light always feel too bright, glaring out so as to simply emphasise the gloom and make it more unbearable, rather than illuminating it in any discernible way. Scene after scene, the audience are jettisoned in a strange zone where it is too dim for us to be able to make out anything definitively, but also just light enough to almost acclimatise us to the dimness as well, with the result that any source of light feels painful and unnatural. It’s no coincidence, then, that the first victim of the witches finds herself crying telepathic tears that make bright light unbearable, but that also propel her to the room at the heart of the studio – a traumatically lit room walled with mirrors that forms a motor engine of the witches’ coven.
Within that space, dancing is presenting as a form of possession, especially since the witches prefer to dance without music, meaning that the only sounds are those of the percussive materiality of the body itself. To that end, Guadagnino emphasises dance as a contact activity, both in terms of the intuitive contact between dancers, and the physical contact between dancers and the floor, which is where the most danger and risk occurs. From the start of the film, the floor is presented as the sensuous and violent horizon of the entire studio, since the more proximity to the floor, and the more willingness to engage with the floor, the more violent the potentiality and physicality of the dance. It’s during these communions with the floor that dance becomes the medium through which magic occurs, just as it’s on the floor where magic reveals itself for what it truly is – an intensified version of the haptic connection between women when dancing, which is itself merely an intensified version of the haptic connection between women in everyday life. In that sense, the coven, and the dance, play as both an intensified version of the everyday world and a way of displacing the everyday world, as the coven works by exacerbating the physical and psychological communion of women, in the absence of men, to a telepathic dimensionality.
Conversely, dance is presented as inherently telepathic and telekinetic, meaning that the more violent and embodied the dance becomes, the more it draws upon these preternatural powers. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the film, Susie’s debut dance exudes such a haptic intensity that, when mediated through the witches, it unwittingly causes a sympathethic and fatal response from the body of a girl in another part of the building, in one of the eeriest horror sequences I have seen committed to the big screen in some time. Likewise, many of the occult moments simply involve the witches entering into the proprioceptive ambience of the younger women in deliberately stylised ways, or otherwide sequestering objects that have to pass through these spaces, such as personal items or bodily fluids. The result is a quite unique form of horror in which the proprioceptive space of each dancer expands out until everything is as embodied as if it were taking place just above the surface of the skin, but also compressed until even the most local and immediate embodied experiences seem aligned with unthinkable and oppressive global factors, situating the audience in an incommensurate and inconceivable zone that is agoraphobic and claustrophobic, detached and intimate, all in the same instant.
Yet that schismatic space is needed for Suspiria to provide something that we rarely see on film – a fully-functioning matriarchal society, replete with its own rituals, processes and ceremonies for ensuring longevity. While those rituals may be framed in terms of the occult, they’re no less abstruse than patriarchal society, whose discourses are condensed here to Jungian psychology and Freemasonry, the two reference points for the psychologist who starts to investigate the coven after several of the young dancers come to him for help. Along with two police officers who briefly investigate the studio, this psychologist personifies masculine discourse, and reduces masculinity itself to discourse, over the course of the film, situating the coven, in turn, as a space that not only repels men, but repels the association of masculinity with discourse so prevalent in the world outside. It is a wonderful twist of casting, then, that Swinton also plays the psychologist – something I only realised afterwards – since even when this figure is the most critical of the patriarchal system, he is nevertheless speaking from within that system, meaning that the only way for the women in the coven to really respond to him is to try to contain and co-opt the fact of his voice itself.
This simultaneous expansion and contraction of space also ensures that Susie is integrated into the coven in an even more subliminal way than the earlier film, thanks in part to the deft tactility and materiality of Gudagnino’s camera, whose zooms, crane shots, lateral pans and sequence shots always place us a little far from, or a little too close to, whatever it happens to be depicting. Whereas Argento’s camera was determined to match the intensity of the coven in its movements and gestures, Guadagnino’s camera seems haunted by something it can’t quite conceive or register, just as the dawning telepathic communion between Susie and the rest of the women – and Susie’s dawning awareness of her own matriarchal and supernatural destiny – can only be fully recognised once it is completely acquired. In that sense, Suspiria plays more like a gradual and uneven constellation of occult and matriarchal consciousness, rather than a direct or linear narrative, dissociating sounds and images in ways that feel analogous to the fractured audiovisual schisms of giallo, while never playing as a straightforward homage to Argento or the genre that he perfected either.
It is within this matriarchal environment, and this atmosphere of aesthetic finitude, that the film’s second form of finitude comes into play – the finitude of attributing female actions to a historical discursive field contoured and contained by masculinity. Early in the film, the witches are periodised in terms of World War II – we learn they have been “underground” since the war, and we are led to believe that their actions bear some kind of specific relation to the present, if only because Guadagnino includes much more period specificity than occurs in any of Argento’s films. Yet any potential discussions of history and politics within the coven tend to be deflected and mediated through dance. Rather than historicizing, politicizing, or suggesting some material substrate to the present moment, Madame Blanc instead emphasises the maternal earth, which is here condensed to the dance floor, and the “pull of the earth” beneath it. Observing to Susie that “There are two things that dance can never be again: beautiful and cheerful,” Blanc proffers movement as an alternative language to history, meaning that in order to elude the history of the patriarchal world, and history itself as a perpetuation of patriarchy, it is necessary to move closer and closer to the floor.
As the film proceeds, Susie’s trajectory therefore involves bringing her dance moves down to the floor – a process that paradoxically involves being willing to bring jumping into her routine. At first, she resists this, claiming that it distracts her from the floor, but Madame Blanc’s key lesson is that jumping into the air actually maximizes engagement with the floor, since it means landing on the floor even more plosively, while also extending the ambit of the floor up into the air (“the important thing is the space beneath you”). That combination of aspiration with reverence for the earth – upwards and downwards motions that need to be contained in a single motion – requires ever more dramatic, elastic and tortuous dance movements from the group, and from Susie in particular, as Guadagnino moves, in sympathy, between emphasising the verticality of the dance studio and grounding that verticality in the depths of the studio, from basements to canopies with vertiginous speed.
All those tendencies culminate with the dance studio’s performance of a piece entitled Volk, which forms the focus of Act 5 (titled “All the floor is darkness”), and which dissolves the floor into a darker and more magical medium that allows the dancers to commune with the very deepest levels of the studio. By this stage, dance has segued fully into occult ritual, as the ideologies of Nazism are processed and contemplated purely at the level of movement – revealing, in turn, that all the dark energies that produced Nazism in the first place are still in existence, but can’t – and never could – be contained by discourse alone, just because their most powerful and pervasive impacts were felt when they were framed in a discursive way, as theses on ideology, religion and history. Instead, the film suggests, history can only be expressed and processed through movement, and through the haptic experiences that are repressed and ignored by history itself, as Guadagnino taps into the same muscle memories that have allowed Nazism to persist into the present tense, prompting Susie to condense the dance to one question: “Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?”
Rather than function as allegory, then, the dance studio signals an exhaustion of ideology, religion, history and the very promise of masculinist discourses to contain chaos or prevent catastrophe. While the film may be very pointedly set against a particular historical milieu, the perpetual interjections of the Baader-Meinhoff Era, the Red Army Faction, and the events of Lufthansa Flight 181, remain trapped in a different plane from those of the dance studio, signaling a horizon to historical and political discourse, rather than anchoring any kind of putative allegory on Guadagnino’s part. Nowhere is that clearer in the figure of Swinton’s Dr. Klemperer, the only sustained male part, who initially seems like a victim of the very discourses that the coven are rejecting, since it emerges that he had a wife who vanished in the Holocaust, and whose absence has haunted him ever since. In quite an extraordinary twist, however, it turns out that he could have saved her, and that he had actually ignored her concerns about the rising tide of anti-semitism, making you realise, in turn, how automatically most films would expect you to reserve most of your sympathy for him, rather than for the silence and erasure of his wife, which is now foregrounded here.
The point is made succinctly in the final act, which initially appears to sink back into the historico-discursive texture that the film has spent so much time resisting. On the one hand, the witches are stripped of much of their supernatural agency, and instead presented as most people see them – as a collection of pre-war intellectuals who still dine in their favourite restaurants, and still sing their favourite songs after a couple of glasses of wine, having found a way to persist and survive despite the political contingencies of the last half century. On the other hand, Dr. Klemperer appears to be reunited with his wife, who reveals to him that she, too, has been looking for him ever since WWII. Yet at the very moment at which the film settles into this histotorical discursive field, Guadagnino ruptures it in the most violent way, as Klemperer’s wife transforms into a howling witch who strikes him before making the film’s most direct statement about gender so far – “When women tell you the truth, you don’t believe them – you tell them they are delirious” – before bundling him up and transporting him into the basement of the studio for the film’s eerie final act.
Even when women tell the truth about politics, then, they are elided from politics – a paradox that informs the cultic climax, which takes the form of a matriarchal ritual that simply intensifies the Volk dance to even more inhuman and unrecognisable intensity, rendering it more contorted, more baroque, more demanding, more visceral, more dangerous and, above all, more fixated on the ground (it takes place in the basement, and reveals an even deeper basement) despite being more gesturally fixated on upwards motion than any iteration yet too. Forced to envisage herself in the space between those hyperbolic upwards and downwards motions, Susie not only discovers that she has to reject her own mother to reject patrilinearity, but that she has to accept a new mother to fulfil her destiny of becoming a different kind of mother herself, as the occult vocabulary of the film is stretched to ever more hyperbolic spectacles for the sake of wrenching motherhood away from the demands of patriarchy. In its final stages, this dance-ritual starts to warp the fabric of the film itself, resulting in a fusion of slowed-down and sped-up imagery that reminded me of the later stages of Gaspar Noe’s Climax, devolving every part of Guadagnino’s mise-en-scene into a hyper-chaos that even the most extreme dance moves can barely contain.
While Klemperer may be bound during this whole process, it turns out that men are not significant enough to be sacrificed, or even used as a witness, but that his presence is only important as a point of difference or reference for the dance to define itself against. Releasing him the next day is therefore a more profound rejection of the historical discursive texture that he represents than killing him could ever be, paving the way for a broader return to almost-normality as the matriarchal cult is subsumed back into the mode of realism typically dominated by patriarchal concerns. Yet in an incredible final epilogue, Susie visits Klemperer on his death bed, and tells him a detailed and grueling account of his wife’s actual last days during the Holocaust, quickly exceeding what she could possibly know to enact a telepathic communion with Mrs. Klemperer, and all the women forgotten by history, before placing her hands on Klemperer’s eyes and instructing him that “of all the women of your undoing, every memory will vanish.” Rather than accept a discursive field that perpetually forgets women, Susie, as the new head of the coven, engenders forgetting in order to leave space for her matriarchal counterpoint – and it is in that eerie gesture that the final frames of the film ramify, as Guadagnino cuts to the present tense, and the first bright sky in the film, where a family are now moving into Klemperer’s house, too fixated on their pets, possessions and mobile devices to note the carving he and his wife once made.
Yet the effect here isn’t exactly one of sympathy or sorrow for Klemperer, since the film has now exceeded the discursive formations within which that sympathy might occur. Instead, this final shot seems to warn against moving into a house shaped by patriarchal assumptions, or by a discursive field that defines history and politics around exclusion, and an incitement to just the kinds of matriarchal alternative that the film provides. In other words, for all its putative placidity and brightness, this final shot is the rationale for the film, which is ultimately not an allegory about WWII, or the Holocaust, or German reconstruction, but a critique of allegory itself – and of a period in European history where allegory was rife – via the most accomplished and eerily calibrated melodrama of Guadagnino’s filmography, as well as the best performance of Dakota Johnson’s moody, melancholy career to date.
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