November 14, 2018

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‘Suspiria’ Then and Now: Finding Darkness in an All-Female World

‘Suspiria’ Then and Now: Finding Darkness in an All-Female World
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When Dario Argento’s German-set horror movie “Suspiria” came out in 1977, Berlin was on edge. Demonstrators angry at the West German government and what were seen as the depredations of capitalism hit the streets. The far-left guerrilla group the Red Army Faction terrorized the city in what would become known as the German Autumn, leaving several dead. It was also a key period for the assertion of feminist power and female liberation. The Red Army counted women among its leaders, and one of the first feminist magazines in Germany, Emma, published its inaugural issue that year.

Jump ahead four decades and another “Suspiria” is landing in theaters at a different moment of social upheaval and female fury.

Argento’s original has been reimagined by another Italian director, Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”). At its core is the same story: an American dancer travels to Germany to join a dance troupe only to discover it is a front for a coven of witches possessed by the need to perform unspeakable acts. Within the company a battle for control is taking place between the artistic director, Madame Blanc (played by Tilda Swinton), and other senior members. The young American (Dakota Johnson) is caught in the middle, only to become their vessel for violence: she dances their sadistic spells.

The movie revels in gore and gruesome displays of horror — there are exploding chests and scenes of spouting blood — but it also delves into the dynamics of a wholly female community, touching on issues of power, manipulation, motherhood and the horrible things women can do to other women and themselves.

With the original, Argento said, he was intrigued by the prospect of exploring an all-female world and its capacity for dark magic. “It is a story entirely female,” he wrote in an email. “I wanted to dive into the world of esotericism and magic that had impressed me so much when I was very young, and I wrote this film about the power of witches and their influence in today’s society.”

His film shocked audiences by pushing the boundaries of what a horror film could be by mixing the vocabulary of the genre with art-film aesthetics.

“It was a full-throttle sensory assault, and that is for the eyes, ears, mind, stomach, soul and the imagination,” said Adam Lowenstein, a film professor at the University of Pittsburgh who writes about horror. Argento used the standard formula for giallo, a genre of Italian horror film, but the resulting movie was “much less interested in the story than how it feels and looks and sounds.”

Guadagnino said he grew up idolizing the director and recalled that his bedroom was filled with posters of his films. “Argento meant to me a certain power,” Guadagnino said by phone, adding, “I’d never been influenced by the violence as much as I was influenced by his freedom. The form of his film is what impressed, the use of deep red, the use of the details, the way in which he builds every murder almost like a ballet. And it gave me courage. Dario gave me boldness.”

“Suspiria” would prove to be Argento’s greatest artistic achievement, an influence on “Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and countless other horror movies.

In addition to its aesthetics, the movie was also notable at the time because it tried to flip the traditional dynamic of violence in horror movies on its head. Where most such films exploited and victimized women, here women are committing the brutality.

“A lot of people would classify it as a misogynist film because of its violence against women, which I don’t disagree with,” said Alexandra West, co-host of the podcast The Faculty of Horror. “What I think is interesting from a feminist lens is how off to the side all the male characters are. Ultimately it is women harming each other, saving each other, befriending each other and getting angry at each other.”

Guadagnino set his version in 1977 during that season of social tumult and radical feminism. Radio clips and newspapers refer to bombings and a Red Army Faction hostage episode. A muted palette draws on the influence of filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The score by Thom Yorke of Radiohead also plays off the period.

“The time of the original 1977 was very important in terms of revolt and affirmation and the feminist movement then was very strong,” Guadagnino said. “Within the movement they had differences with each other that were very interesting to explore,” he added. “I don’t think female rage is exactly what I was looking for, it’s more a female community and like any community you have displays of power and every relationship of power can bring with it cruelty.”

The director said he was also aiming to show the true nature of violence and its consequences. “I am aware that we are often numb to violence and more often women are the subject of violence,” not men, he said. “‘Suspiria’ is more about human nature than the spectacle of violence.”

That particular period in Berlin and its connection to feminism was fodder for both lead actresses. The German women’s movement at that time “embraced difference and separatism as a way of claiming autonomous and self-determining identity,” Swinton said by email. “The Berlin of that time was expressly involved in the aftershocks of traumatic existential upheaval — those fascists, they certainly leave a trail of destruction — and they surely get those witches going … for better, for worse.”

Johnson said in a phone interview, “It was about harnessing this anger, they were trying to verbalize their anger.”

Dance was central to this kind of expression, Guadagnino said, giving Johnson’s character “a way of making spells and asserting control on other people but also as a kind of liberation.”

Johnson trained for a year before filming started and studied the work of the choreographers Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch, who pioneered genres of abstract, non-narrative, dance. “These women broke the mold of expressionist dance, and they showed that dance itself can be a spell and it’s not pretty,” she said.

The choreography in the new version showcases the movement style of German expressionism. “It’s very aggressive and angular and animalistic and feral and raw, and in that way it’s very feminine,” Johnson said.

Swinton said she modeled her Madame Blanc on a number of dance figures, starting with Martha Graham and Bausch, both for the examples they set and for “the shape Madame Blanc cuts — her silhouette, her barefoot rootedness, the precise choreography of her relationship with cigarette after cigarette.”

The actress also had Wigman in mind, in part for her dances but also because the choreographer had a troubled history of mental health and yet “managed — like Blanc — to sustain her company in Germany all through the Third Reich, having made heaven knows what deals to do so.”

Finally, Swinton cited the seminal 1948 ballet film, “The Red Shoes,” and its charismatic maestro Lermontov, who must persuade the dancer, “the interpreter of his work, to choose art above life.”

If the atmosphere of postwar Berlin in upheaval while “witch-artists” fight for their existence reminds viewers of the current moment, Swinton added, “I suggest we think carefully about what forces gave rise to the political landscape in Germany in 1977 and the reactive initiatives they inspired. Maybe we should look (back) and learn.”



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