A remake of an iconic film as Argento’s Suspira (1977) needs to have a different take. This is exactly what Guadagnino has done. Narrative and style are wildly different and only the basic story elements are kept: an American girl goes to a famous German dance school, where something strange is going on… Witches!
In interviews Guadagnino said he wanted to show in narrative the subtext hidden in the style of the original Suspiria. While Argento doesn’t have a lot of narrative there is a lot to see and hear. The geometric forms, the fashion, the art deco, the bright colors, the reds, the fake blood, and all this eye-candy is accompanied by screeching sounds and shrill music punishing (torturing) the ears. This ‘subtext of style’ is replaced by Guadagnino with new (extra) narrative threads: a girl with sympathy for the RAF, a psychotherapist suffering from his WW2 past and the american girl has suffered from a harsh, religious upbringing
The other thing Guadagnino wanted to do with Suspiria is to make it a great feminist film. Witches are women that are deviant of patriarchal structure. He wants the women in the film to be “really seperate from the male gaze”. He wonders what it would be like to be a witch. How would it be to be in a kind of sorority? How are the relations between the women and the love between them? He wants to show the power and complexity of womanhood. Not the naive, dewy-eyed protagonist Suzy of the original Suspiria.
Did Guadagnino succeed in making a feminist film? Is it a more feminist film than the original?
Opening scenes compared
The opening scene of Argento shows Suzy arriving in Germany. She walks in an airport, which looks surprisingly fresh and modern. Then we see her from the back towards the exit, close to the doors her scarf waves up in her face. (This startled me!) Outside it is dark and pouring rain, she gets into a (creepy) cab, has some trouble making herself understood and they are on their way. At the school – still raining hard – she sees a girl running away. She asks the cab driver to wait, which he does. A good idea because somebody at the intercom tells her to go away. Go away!
Guadagnino doesn’t open with an introduction to Suzy. We do see rain, but grey, less dramatic. We see concrete, in grey. We see a confused girl (Patrizia) barging in her therapist’s – Dr. Josef Klemperer, an older gentleman – house, throwing a bag into a corner. First he tells her he has an appointment, but then decides to see her. In the session we see her squirming and crawling on the couch, she tells him “they want to get inside her”, she runs around and turning around objects with an eye, afraid to be seen. Klemperer makes notes of her apparent delusions and then she rushes of, just as erratic as she arrived.
Usually in horror we need someone whom we trust and who is like us (so not an unknown monstrous being and not someone already aware of the horrifying situation). Together with this person we discover what’s going on. In the original Suspiria this is clearly Suzy. We follow her, we trust her. In the new Suspiria this role has to be Klemperer’s. Even though he is not part of the entire story, he is introduced as our trusted protagonist. He is an authority figure, friendly, and male. Remarkable for a film that wants to be “really seperate from the male gaze”.
Maybe to switch things up, maybe to show the unknown qualities of the women, maybe to give the women more freedom? To complicate things more: Klemperer is played by Tilda Swinton. She also plays Madame Blanc (the famous ballet teacher) and Helena Markos. Guadagnino sees this as Swinton playing the ego, the id and the superego. Which means that – for some reason – the superego is portrayed as a friendly, older (so not dangerous in a physical aggressive way), listening and understanding male.
And I need to add: original Suzy is not naive. Everybody has been in a creepy cab and she handles the situation well, she tells him to wait, she organises a different place to stay. Yes, she has big eyes, but during the entire movie she takes action, she discovers and she fights.
Sorority, the relations between the women compared
In the original Suspiria new student Suzy walks into the dressing room for the first time and the tension is there. Some girls seize her up, some ignore her, some help her. Quite like reality. Usually girls don’t automatically and immediately openly welcome other girls. Suzy does make good friends though. There is always a distance between the female staff and the students. (Even in the sleep-over scene there are blankets between them.) There is an attractive boy, who is being discussed by the girls, a blind pianist, who gets brutally killed. These male figures are not a threat to the girls (nor was the cab driver). Madame Blanc potentially is. She is constantly wearing black and looking military and hostile.
In the new Suspiria all the women seem to be an organic whole. We don’t have a dressing room ‘ritual’ where Suzy needs to find her place. She is the lead dancer immediately. The women seem to be all organically connected. Not only in Suzy’s dance – where she is interconnected with another student and hurts the other badly to death – but also in the contact between teachers and students. Madame Blanc is emotional and slightly unstable. She kisses her students. The kissing seems erotic and wanted. All the staff seems to be needy and lustful. The dancing is erotic and animalistic. As Suzy says somewhere ‘It felt like fucking, like animals’. There is power there, in an aggressive way, in a way that can hurt, but always combined in the group, as a whole, as an animal. Maybe it is better to say as an urge, an instinct.
The staff, played by a collection of interesting actrices, are all completely interchangeable, all workers for a queen bee. In a scene where a male middle aged police inspector comes to the school, the staff has put him in a trance. They are gathered around him and laugh hysterically at his bare, floppy penis. Is this the complexity of womenhood? Or is it a typical male fear?
Interesting to point out: one of the most important horrors witches were accused off (next to baby stealing) in the Middle Ages was penis removal. Either the man couldn’t see his own penis anymore, or it was really removed by witchcraft. Men’s sexual performance was hindered by damn witches! Fornication was apparently the witches’ main interest.
Helena Markos, the end fight compared
Argento’s Markos is a true monster. She is not human, she is not part of our world as we know it. She cannot even be seen, and she has power, she controls things en beings around her. Only a silver outline depending on the light shows where she is. Only after Suzy manages to stab her with the knife she gets a physical, disgusting form. Markos is a supernatural being.
Guadagnino’s Markos is an old lady. Monstrous maybe because she is not attractive anymore for men. She is old and needs fresh blood to keep staying alive. A fragile, old, wrinkled, naked lady. Exactly as how witches in the Middle Ages were also seen (See picture below from Niklaus Manuel Deutch). Old (single) women are no use for the male gaze, so they are probably witches, because why are they even alive anymore. In the new Suspiria, luckily, the young, sexy witch takes over. Sure, sex with her gives a whole new dimension to ‘Russian’, but she is still hot.
Witches: who is the bigger feminist?
Guadagnino’s starting point: how would it be to be a witch? Unfortunately his ideas are all derived from the traditional notions. Women/witches are animal-like, women are all the same and organically connected. They are the id: the unthinking, the lustful, the wanting, the irrational. They are to be feared, they can do with you(r penis) whatever they want. They dance around naked and howl at the moon. To be a witch has nowadays sometimes a feminist connotation, but during the witch trials it was no fun. A legal accusation which the woman was bound to lose.
The original Suspiria wins the battle of being on all fronts of the more feminist film. The ones we trust and the ones we fear are female. Both the female and male characters are diverse (sexy, or nice, or dangerous, etc.). It had a fresh feeling, even though it is very much about style and not so much about narrative or character development.
The most feminist about new Suspiria are the news items you hear in the background about feminism. The witches’ power is somehow connected to their animalistic biology and sexuality: these are midieval male-oriented notions. I haven’t seen any complexity about womenhood. The story is a lot more complex – however with the biggest new narrative thread being about the pains of a man – and as a film it has its own merits. But not as an ode to womanhood.