Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sighs and Whispers

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria (2018)

The most instantly noticeable difference between Dario Argento's original Suspiria and Luca Guadagnino's 2018 cover version is the way each film chooses to decorate itself. Argento's film often seems intent on burning the viewers' retinas right out of their eyeballs. Many of its best effects are accomplished through abstractions: color, stained glass decor, the pulsing electronic Goblin score. Guadagnino's film, by contrast, is a grey, bleak affair, taking its cues from the dismal world of Fassbinder's 1970s Germany. Both films start with a woman seeking help in a driving rainstorm, but where Argento's opening orchestrates a world of peril and chaos, Guadagnino's opening is a portrait of misery and defeat. It wouldn't be right to claim, as some have, that Guadagnino's film is "artier" than Argento's, because Argento's films from the 1970s are all art objects to one degree or another, both as objects unto themselves and in their contents. Argento made films in which art is dangerous, in which art can be used as a weapon. It shares this theme with the new film. They just have different ideas about art.

Note: this is heavy on the spoilers.

The story is recognizably built on the bones of the first film, in so far as it follows a young American woman, Susie, a fish out of water, who has arrived at a snooty German dance academy where sinister things are happening. The woman who previously occupied her spot at the school has vanished under mysterious circumstances. One of the other women--the lead dancer in the school's current production--storms out of the academy when her dancing is judged not to be up to snuff. She accuses the faculty of being a bunch of witches. This gives Susie an opportunity. She knows the piece, she says, and she steps into the role. The faculty, who actually are witches, see in Susie the potential to complete a ritual that was intended for Patricia, the girl who has gone missing. The search for Patricia forms a parallel plot. She had become involved with bomb-throwing radicals intent on bringing down capitalism. The film is set in Berlin at the time of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang/Red Army Faction, who are engaged in a standoff during an airplane hijacking during the time period in which the film takes place. Patricia, for her part, has fled the school, and before she vanished, she entrusted her story to her psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer, who views Patricia's tale of a witches running the dance school with a skeptical eye. When she vanishes, Klemperer begins to make inquiries himself after the police find nothing, which calls up feelings about his wife, who vanished during WW II and whose fate he was never able to learn. His investigation brings him to the academy and to the attention of the coven there. They decide that there is a role for him in their upcoming ritual. The staff itself is in the middle of a power struggle between the ancient Helena Markos who intends the ritual to extend her own life, and the choreographer, Madame Blanc, who takes a particular interest in Susie. She senses something special in he, from the moment she feels her audition from afar. Susie's orientation has been entrusted to Sarah, who follows in Patricia's footsteps and discovers more and more troubling things about the academy, much to her sorrow. Eventually, the time for the ritual arrives...

Suspiria (2018)

I wasn't expecting the new Suspiria to be as violent as it turned out to be. Art house directors who go slumming in the horror genre sometimes lack that instinct for the jugular, but Guadagnino seems to have internalized the fact that Argento's is a cinema of cruelty. If anything, his film is more violent than anything Argento ever made. The destruction of Olga, the lead dancer who storms out, is the first evidence of that. The way the film twists her body into (literal) knots at the urging of whatever spell has been cast on Susie as she dances is ghastly enough, but the coup de grace when the faculty hauls her body off is even worse. And then the film revisits her in the scene where Sarah is stumbling around in the dark (In the mother's house, all the floors are darkness). This is a film that's at least partially about the physicality of bodies, about their fragility. In this regard, Guadagnino makes more out of his setting at a dance school than the first film did. And it's not just female bodies, even though this is a particularly feminine movie. The way the film mocks its few male characters is entirely unexpected. It's something Argento never would have filmed, but it's of a piece with this film's pocket universe ruled by women. The film's climax goes well beyond this, though. Instead of a trip into the labyrinth, in which our plucky heroine slays the minotaur, we get a scene worthy of one of those silent films that depict witches and hell itself, complete with an underworld demon in the monstrous Helena Markos. It's more Christensen's Haxan or Murnau's Faust, or, more to the point, it's a variant on the climax of Alucarda once the Mother of Sighs reveals herself. The carnage unleashed during this sequence reveals that the film's previous bloodletting has been a warm-up, like a dancer doing stretching exercises before taking the stage.

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria (2018)

Dance is a central element of the film. It's surprising that it wasn't as central to Argento's film, given the setting, but Argento had other concerns. Guadagnino has moved it into the spotlight, highlighting both the ritual nature of dance--particularly the modern dance styles depicted in the film--and the toll it takes on bodies. Dakota Johnson's performance in the film goes beyond saying her lines and emoting--she's given a very difficult physical task to perform as a dancer and she completely sells it. A lot of films might elide her abilities as a dancer, but this film depicts it without crutches. The dance itself is influenced by the likes of Twyla Tharp and Pina Bausch and is different enough from the dance that one usually sees in films that it instills an element of disquiet in its own right (anyone who has seen Bausch's staging of The Rite of Spring or Tharp's The Catherine Wheel will recognize the roots of this film's aesthetic. Bodies move strangely in this film. This film's conception of Madame Blanc is informed by dance, too. The character in the original film, played by Joan Bennett, seems more in line with those films from the late sixties and early seventies derived from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which aging actresses are tasked with playing gorgons. Tilda Swinton's Madame Blanc, by contrast, is a chain-smoking choreographer a la Martha Graham or Bob Fosse. The filmmakers take full advantage of Swinton's physique here: her willowy frame and graceful neck and expressive hands are part of her performance. She is totally convincing as a character that comes from dance and dancers. Swinton shows us that she knows her business. And in the end, the film knows its business, too. The dance becomes ritual. Ritual becomes dance.

Tilda Swinton in Suspiria (2018)

The political ferment of 1977 Berlin is something that seems new to the film relative to the Italian horror movies of the 1970s, but only because those films presented their politics as subtext rather than as text. This film moves its radicalism to the forefront. The Giallo and the other Italianate horror movies of that era were very much fellow travelers with the politics of the Red Army Faction. Those films invited their audiences to groove on the massacree of the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie in their affluent spaces, often murdered by their own expensive things. This film, by contrast, describes the Red Army's struggle as a desire to bomb department stores, which equates to much the same impulse. The Berlin of this film is still a Cold War battleground, and its visual murk, as with the filmmakers of the German new wave, is reflective of the politics of its setting. It's not for nothing that Susie tells Madame Blanc that people behave as if the worst is over, as if things cannot get much, much worse. We're living in that future, I think. While this film's primary influence is Dario Argento, naturally, it's also deeply influenced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff and early Paul Verhoeven, a fact underlined by the presence of Angela Winkler and Ingrid Cravens and Renée Soutendijk in the cast. The visual sensibility of the film's exterior world is very much of a piece with the German New Wave of the 1970s.

Ingrid Caven, Renée Soutendijk, Sylvie Testud, and Angela Winkler in Suspiria (2018)

For all intents and purposes, this is an exclusively female film. Even the one significant male character, Klemperer, is played by a woman. The film's female gaze is withering, though blinded by its contempt of men, perhaps, to the beam in its own eye. This is certainly a film in which women destroy each other.  This is as much a film about witchcraft and feminine religion as it is about resisting and mocking the patriarchy, and in this, the film turns surprisingly spiritual. Its major conflict between the factions supporting Helena Markos and Madame Blanc represent a religious schism, but one in a religion with a living goddess who enters the dispute and takes a bloody hand to resolve it. The question is unasked, but lingers in the negative spaces of the film: Why would anyone worship such a bloody handed deity in the first place? (This is a question that can be asked of most religions, not just the invented one in this film).

Elena Fokina in Suspiria (2018)

The depiction of The Mother of Sighs differs from Argento's monstrous witch. That monstrous witch is still there. Helena Markos is a memorable grotesque, but unlike in the first film, she is not the Mother of Sighs.This film takes its cues from the depiction of the Mother of Tears in Inferno, seen in brief as a beautiful young woman holding a cat at a musical event. The identity of the Mother of Sighs is one of the film's more creative conceits, given the first letters of Susie's name and the way it depicts the life from which she allegedly comes to Berlin. The flashback scenes to the death of Susie's mother are telling, in so far as they never actually show Susie's face, but show Dakota Johnson playing Susie's pregnant sister, thus conflating her image with that of a "mother". Moreover, Susie's mother on her deathbed is played by the same actress who plays Death herself (the Mother of Darkness, perhaps). The spirituality in these scenes is elided by their setting among Mennonites. This contrasts with the faith espoused by this film's witches, which the film suggests has been afflicted by the rot of politics. These scenes connect the film with motherhood in a way that none of the scenes in the dance academy do. The followers of The Three Mothers seem to have lost their way. This is where the film's politics come in.

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria (2018)

The history of Germany's politics haunts the film, too, in the recurrence of guilt over the atrocities of the 20th Century. Klemperer's search for Patricia in echo of his search for his wife is an expression of guilt and loss. When the coven conjures the image of his wife to lure him to the academy, its seemingly a grace note of forgiveness, one yanked away by a capricious enemy. From a cinematic standpoint, the interior of the dance academy is more aligned with Argento, in which scenes evolve into set-pieces, where mirrors act as portals, and where the gaze of the film fractures in flash-pans, jump cuts, and sudden zoom shots. This interior space finds the politics of the outside world recurring in microcosm. The method with which the witches abduct Klemperer finds them inviting and subsuming the external world's politics into their own. Here is where the film becomes less cruel than Argento's original, though. It unexpectedly sends the Mother of Sighs into the world not just as an avenging angel, but as a minister of grace and mercy. In the film's epilogue, she grants Klemperer a kind of absolution that moves the film away from the cinema of cruelty and even away from the cinema of abstraction into a cinema of forgiveness.

Argento's film finds chaos roiling behind the curtain of prosaic reality. It tears away the curtain and finds absolute horrors. This film tears away the curtain and finds the same chaos, but in that chaos, it sees the possibilities of rebirth.

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