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A Conscious Retelling of Argento’s Giallo Classic

By Cassi Guerra

In 1977, Italian director Dario Argento offered the world Suspiria, a simultaneously beautiful
and hellish work of horror. The film follows American dancer Susie Bannion (Jessica Harper) and
her entry to a prestigious German dance academy that seems to hold a sinister secret within its
depths. That is just about where the common thread ends between Argento’s Suspiria and the
2018 remake by another Italian, Luca Guadagnino. Guadagnino’s Suspiria was troubling to me
when I first saw the trailer. The production and lighting design was void of the lurid Technicolor that
Argento’s original is known for and the casting of the historically underwhelming Dakota Johnson
as lead left the remake feeling too minimal, uninspired even. One of the most immediate things I
realized on my first viewing of the new Suspiria, however, was the fact that this was no ordinary
remake so much as a retelling and revamping of Argento’s original rainbow nightmare.
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is set in 1977 Berlin, an homage to the release date of the
original, against the background of the German Autumn, a period of domestic terrorism that led to
the Lufthansa airline hijacking in October of the same year. Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz)
arrives at her psychiatrist’s office a trembling, babbling wreck. Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf,
more on him later) takes note of her behavior, attributing her tales of witches and ritualistic
sacrifices to paranoid delusion. Patricia disappears and can be assumed to join the Red Army
Faction. Meanwhile, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) lands in Berlin, far from her restrictive
Mennonite family left behind in Ohio. She reaches her destination, a cold, grey dance academy
facing the Berlin Wall, where she auditions for the renowned dance company headed by Madame
Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Susie immediately catches the faculty’s eye and perhaps the eye of an
unseen force hidden within the bowels of the labyrinthine school, making her the perfect candidate
for the grooming that prompted Patricia’s frenzied escape. As the movie progresses, Susie literally
and metaphorically falls into the hands of the academy whilst Dr. Klemperer attempts to make
sense of the frightening entries in Patricia’s abandoned diary, and whether or not they are grounded
in reality.

In her text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey explains that “it is said
that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” (Mulvey, 59). Suspiria echoes this sentiment when
Madame Blanc says that dance can no longer be beautiful but must be purposeful, defiant. “We are
women, aren’t we” she instructs Susie, “We must break the nose of every beautiful thing.”
Guadagnino does exactly this, imbuing Argento’s visually rich but thematically apolitical original
with messages of the female experience. Gone are the splendid splashes of green light through a
window or red seeping through a makeshift curtain, replaced by harsh, stony interiors and bleak,
grey passages. I thought I would miss the absurd color, one of my favorite aspects of the original,
but for Guadagnino to include it in this new version would be hypocritical. The long-suffering, now
once again upheaved Germany of the new Suspiria simply cannot be treated in the same stylish,
ornate mode of its predecessor. The state of Berlin compared to the atmosphere of the smaller
Freiburg in Argento’s film seems to be one of critics’ biggest complaints with Guadagnino’s film.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker calls the film’s setting “full of disconnected, static, but
attention-getting, details of vast historical import... They are bait for critical vanity, handing critics
toys to play with, toys that can be defended as educational while offering little substance and less
thought” (Brody). While explicitly setting Suspiria in 1977 functions in part as a nod to the first one, I can understand how one might see it as a cop-out to take advantage of the violence occurring in
Germany at that time. However, political unrest is central to Guadagnino’s retelling. Madame Blanc
and the academy’s coven of witches are born of Germany’s violence, having all witnessed the
devastation of the Holocaust. Their resilience guides their principles, the coven’s need for rebirth,
and an obligation to forgo beauty in favor of resistance. The dance that the first two acts lead up to
is further evidence of this, titled “Volk” - the people. As Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times
writes, “the art of dancing... becomes a form of supernatural resistance. The Markos coven is an
all-female institution that channels violent national traumas into vibrant art, a stronghold against the
tyrannies of the police state and the wars waged by mortal men” (Chang). The women of Suspiria
have faced such crisis before, and the heightened climate of the German Autumn adds to the
enerveration that they must do so again. The critics who dismiss this are also dismissing the past,
something Suspiria warns audiences not to forget; Susie’s orthodox childhood, Dr. Klemperer’s
missing wife, and the coven’s preoccupation with ritual all serve as reminders of this. To echo
Mulvey once more, there is a “thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it”
(Mulvey, 59), which is exactly how Guadagnino executes this revival of Argento’s original lore.
As mentioned previously, another facet of Suspiria’s update, in my opinion the most
important one, is the fact that Guadagnino truly focuses on the women, whereas Argento’s original
feels almost as if the female-dominant cast happened by virtue of the story being set in a ballet
school run by witches (which, don’t get me wrong, is still a fabulous premise). As the film’s events
begin grimly escalating, Dr. Klemperer finds himself led to the dance academy and abducted by
witches. He begs them to pity him as an old man, to which one of the women screams “What
reason is there to pity you? You had five years to get your wife out of Berlin before arrests began.
When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them. You tell them they are delusional!” This
references not only his wife Anke (played as a cameo role by Jessica Harper), but also Patricia with
her suspicion that she was in danger at the academy. In her piece “Feminist Frameworks for Horror
Films,” Cynthia Freeland questions how a film might “comment upon, replicate, parody, or revise
the gender thematics of its predecessors” (Freeland, 753). Critic Walter Chaw answers this in his
review of the film, suggesting that “the main difference - of many differences - between
Guadagnino’s picture and Dario Argento’s classic.... is, in fact, that the witches are right” (Chaw).
Despite their cruelty and even their violent participation in the cases of Patricia and the ill-fated
Olga (Elena Fokina), the witches are the most savvy to the crimes against women at the hands of
men. It is men who ignore the past in this film and in doing so they do not learn from the women
whose plights they give no credence, even in Klemperer’s case after his non-Aryan wife goes
missing in a raid during the Holocaust. The witches, having tucked themselves away in their own
matriarchy, know better than anyone the damage of the ignorance and violence towards women
that pervades beyond the academy walls. This is where the identity of Klemperer’s actor Lutz
Ebersdorf becomes important, as it is Tilda Swinton masterfully disguised by prosthetics, including
a prosthetic penis that calls to mind Mulvey’s concept of the female body as castrated man. Via this
strange casting decision, Klemperer floats between man and woman. He is at fault of invalidating
women in his past, though he is played with the understanding of a woman that is crucial to his
increased empathy and guilt as the film goes on. Transformed by the violence he witnesses in the
film’s third act, he finally understands a sort of female turmoil that he was unable, or perhaps
unwilling to see in Anke and Patricia. His character arc closes with Susie telling him “We need guilt
and shame. But not yours,” at which point the memories “of all the women of [his] undoing” are
erased. He has finally learned what pain he and his fellow man have caused, and so he may live out the rest of his years mercifully unhaunted by the past.

For how beautiful, and how meaningful Guadagnino’s Suspiria has become to me, I
continue to feel hung-up on the question of whether this film, so saturated by female power,
qualifies as the feminist film I want it to be. Female critics like Slate’s Dana Stevens have been
cautiously appreciative, saying “The new Suspiria is a deeply respectful, even extravagant homage
to the old one, a love letter from an evident admirer.... But Guadagnino... has saddled the slim
frame of the 98-minute original with layers of meaning it may not have been designed to carry”
(Stevens). Meanwhile, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times calls this reimagining an “old vagina
dentata scare show,” and argues that “what precisely [Guadagnino] wants to say amid all the
carefully choreographed bloodletting and disembowelment chic is unclear” (Dargis). On the other
hand, I have heard nothing but praise from my female peers who have viewed it. As Christian Metz
states in “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema,” “...the semiotics of the cinema must
frequently consider things from the point of view of the spectator rather than of the filmmaker”
(101). With that in mind, I feel it is important to consider the points of view of the women claiming
Suspiria is not a feminist film. Where they see they see Olga’s destruction at the hands of an
unaware Susie as a needlessly cruel set piece, the difficult-to-watch scene felt, to me, informed by
the intense pain of women in opposition and how a patriarchal society has tried convincing us that
for one woman to succeed, she must tear another down. The gory finale, which left me in tears and
continues to haunt me, feels to me not like a spectacle of aforementioned “disembowelment chic”
but a lament of violence, and a sadness for what has been done to these women. As Thom Yorke’s
mournful song “Unmade” plays over the scene, which is doused in red in a visual callback to
Argento that stands out against the rest of Guadagnino’s film, the film’s young women are brought
together, led in a final dance by an all-powerful Susie, Mother Suspiriorum. As Metz proffers,
“Filmic manipulation transforms what might have been a mere visual transfer of reality into
discourse” (Metz, 105), which I truly feel Guadagnino achieves with great consciousness and

Works Cited

Brody, Richard. “Review: Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ is the Cinematic Equivalent of a Designer
Che T-Shirt.” Review of Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino. The New Yorker. 30 October 2018. Online.

Chang, Justin. “Review: Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ remake casts a powerfully brutal, sorrowful
spell.” Review of Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino. Los Angeles Times. 24 October 2018. Online.

Chaw, Walter. “Mandy (2018) + Suspiria (2018).” Review of Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino. Film
Freak Central. 24 October 2018. Online.

Dargis, Manohla. “Review: ‘Suspiria’ Is a Gaudy Freakout of Female Violence.” Review of Suspiria,
dir. Luca Guadagnino. The New York Times. 24 October 2018. Online.

Freeland, Cynthia. “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films.” 1996, pp. 742-763.

Metz, Christian. “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema.” 1974, pp. 92-107.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, issue 3, no. 1, October
1975, pp. 57-68.

Stevens, Dana. “Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria Remake Is a Witches’ Brew of Art House, Horror, and
Kink.” Review of Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino. Slate. 26 October 2018. Online.

Suspiria. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, performances by Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton.
Amazon Studios, 2018.

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