Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’ a psychoanalytic playground with uncertain feminist cred

Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton in ‘Suspiria.’ — video still

In the second act of Suspiria (currently playing at FilmScene), minor characters remark that they plan to attend a lecture by the French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan. This throwaway reference may be the key to encountering director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 film Suspiria. There are many Lacanian principles guiding this film; most notably, we may find his concept of jouissance — pleasure beyond or pleasure inhibited and therefore denied, perverted or annihilated — as a helpful lens through which to appreciate this film.

The film is polarizing, as reflected on Rotten Tomatoes (currently 62 percent approval rating) with critics either praising Guadagnino’s bold and heady filmmaking or deriding the movie as pretentious and boring. Many critics, including this one, find Suspiria to be both at the same time, but fully in compliance with Lacanian jouissance as excessive pleasure that destroys and causes pain. The film is an exercise in excess, but not necessarily the same excesses of its source, Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic of the same name.

Argento’s film, co-written with Daria Nicolodi, is a garish, Technicolor acid trip. The young American dancer Suzy Bannion joins a dance company in Freiberg, and while investigating the disappearance of a fellow dancer, she uncovers that the dance studio is home to a coven of modern witches. The resourceful Suzy defeats the witches and destroys their evil plans.

This new film keeps the basic plot: a new American dancer named Susie Bannion (played by Dakota Johnson) being groomed as a vessel for an aging witch, the sleuthing aspect to uncover the disappearance of young women, a coven of witches, nightmarish sequences. The characters’ names remain mostly unchanged, but the setting, pacing and palette of the original film are vastly different here. The ending — no spoilers — diverges from the original, and Suzy’s role as young detective and eventual hero is displaced into another character altogether, leaving a new fate for the young dancer.

Mirror play in ‘Suspiria.’ — video still

While the original setting was the imposing neoclassical architecture of Munich, with garish primary-colored interiors, the 2018 film is set in 1977 Berlin (the year the original film was released). The city divided from itself reflects cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s frequent use of framing shots through mirrors. This Berlin is somber, rainy and scrawled with political graffiti, and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 is the major story on all televisions and radios.

The 1977 film is quick moving with surreal vignettes and inventive cinematography. The 2018 film is languid, and excepting the manic dance sequences and the frightening dream sequences, moves along at the pace of the film’s octogenarian hero Dr. Josef Klemperer. Argento’s abstract patterns; vivid red, green and blue sets; and frequent bisexual lighting have been replaced by a desaturated, wintry palette with only Johnson’s flaming wig, the dancers’ red string costumes and copious amounts of blood accentuating the greyscale.

The trippy progrock of Goblin has been replaced by Thom Yorke’s haunting score, but the most distinguished sounds are the percussive sighs, grunts and groans of the dancers. The three dance sequences, too, are a major departure from the origin, and Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet’s pulsing, frenetic dances show the force of women’s bodies and desires. The feminine vigor of dance in this film can break bodies, call up evil spirits and reify the supernatural elements of the film.

As part of the 2018 Witching Hour events last month, Film Scene’s Executive Director Joe Tiefenthaler interviewed screenwriter and producer David Kajganich, who earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, during which Kajganich admitted that he only watched Argento’s film twice, once when younger and once again before writing his screenplay. Instead, there is a wealth of other influences, especially German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Kajganich explained that Argento’s version is a “hermetically sealed nightmare and to ape that logic wasn’t going to work.”

David Kajganich talks with FilmScene’s Joe Tiefenthaler during Witching Hour. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

What the logic is of this film is also difficult to discern. There is a conflation of political activism; terrorism and religious fanaticism; a democratic election of witches gone awry; masturbatory nightmares; flashbacks to a Mennonite farmstead in Ohio; a wealth of maternal figures; a witches’ Sabbath, alchemy; “strong women” (a refrain spoken by several characters); and several exploding heads.

The conceit of the film as Kajganich explained during Witching Hour is that “the coven isn’t about being scary, but about women in power — and how you read this says something about you, the viewer.”

The film is gynocentric, with only three male roles: two police officers, who are emasculated by the witches, and Tilda Swinton under heavy prosthetics as Dr. Josef Klemperer, a psychiatrist for one of the missing dancers (a brief but powerful turn by Chloe Grace Moretz as Patricia) who initially dismisses his patient as hysterical and delusional, but he comes to believe her charges of abuse, exploitation and witchcraft.

As Klemperer, Swinton provides the emotional core of the film, finding parallels between the disappearance of Patricia and that of his wife during the occupation of Berlin in the 1940s. Klemperer is privy to the witches’ rituals, escaping to become the “final girl” of the movie. There is something subversive about assigning that classic horror film archetype to an elderly man (as played by a seemingly immortal actress), but is it a feminist intervention or just an inversion of a cinematic trope?

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The rest of the cast are women, with Swinton doing triple duty as the austere Madame Blanc, who has a psychic and maternal connection with Susie, and as the decrepit mother of the dance company, the mysterious Helena Markos. Jessica Harper, the original Suzy, joins the coven in a cameo. Mia Goth plays the inquisitive Sara well, and Elena Fokin provides one of the most horrific physical performances as Olga, the headstrong dancer who is punished for her transgressions, in a dance sequence that leaves her body contorted, leaking and broken.

‘Suspiria’ is fraught with power plays. — video still

If the film is about women in power, the witches are petty and fighting among each other for control. The three missing dancers, all young women who challenged the system, appear toward the end in a grotesque parody of the three Graces. When Susie asserts her supremacy toward the end, she undermines the power of women working together for their strength. Johnson worked hard to perfect her dancing, but her Susie remains a cypher excepting in her primal, frenetic dancing. This makes her turn in the final act all the more chilling, but perplexing.

The witches are vestiges of women fighting to retain power, and there are intergenerational conflicts concerning aging, vitality and agency. In many ways, this Suspiria has more in common with several recent horror works than it does with the original film. In our particular political moment of the “witch hunt,” witches are the reclaimed monster/feminist symbol du jour.

Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, especially the Coven and current Apocalypse seasons, encompasses cults, witchy women in power and literal backstabbing among women. Ari Aster’s Hereditary, a film also about the occult and the demanding, traumatic relationships between a grandmother, mother, and daughter is another obvious corollary. Having just watched (and enjoyed) the most recent installment of the Halloween franchise, it is hard not to see how that film has the generations of women work together despite their differences to overcome their foe.

Suspiria has an excess of maternal figures, from the triumvirate of ancient powers — Mothers Suspiriorum, Tenebrarum and Lachrymarum — listed in Patricia’s diary, to the competing mothers that Susie must embrace or destroy, including her own Mennonite mother in her death throes, Madame Blanc, Madame Markos and the goddess Death herself.

Kajganich explained that “we wanted to strip away the male gaze,” but the filmmakers have been accused of appropriating the feminist artwork of University of Iowa educated Ana Mendieta (the specific images were cut from the final theatrical release of the film). And the principal creators of Suspiria — the director, screenwriter and choreographer — are all men.

Again, a Lacanian reading of these mothers may allow for a fruitful reading of artistic anxiety and unfulfilled desires. This, too, leaves for an unpleasurable series of questions: Why this remake now? Why are male writers and directors trying to create another narrative of witches in this particular moment of time, appropriating feminist art without attribution and hiring an all-female cast, but still making the hero an 80-year-old man (even if he’s played by Swinton, too.)? Why not rewrite how and why women are drawn to the occult (as in the recent film The Witch)? Why not destroy the patriarchy rather than have women destroy each other?

As a psychoanalytic study it is audacious, frightening and excessive — but as a feminist revision, it has its ideological flaws.