«Magic is what is believed everywhere, always and by everyone…»
«Suspiria» is a film for everyone. We are not talking about censorship, that’s right. We are saying that it is a film that everyone can understand. Because although we live in a world now dominated by science and technology, there exists in man a primitive attraction towards the unknown, mystery, magic; an irreducible irrational core, which emerges mostly in the world of dreams. «Suspiria», after all, is «a bad dream trapped in a nightmare» to quote a certain John Carpenter.
A multi-layered dream structure is the key to interpreting the film.
The story is simple and we are not interested in delving too deeply into it. We will just say that Susy Benner, an American girl, decides to perfect her skills at the prestigious Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. She arrives just when another student, Pat, who had discovered something terrible, is about to be murdered. Susy befriends Sarah, who will unfortunately meet a bad end, and begins to investigate the mysteries surrounding the school. She eventually discovers that it is the headquarters of a coven of witches, led by a certain Helena Markos.
There is no doubt that this is a horror film. You can tell by the ‘structural’ fear linked to violent and macabre situations. It is precisely the ability to scare and to convey, through this emotion, deep meanings about Death and Evil what makes a horror film truly relevant. Otherwise, everything would be reduced to pure sensation, in some cases even ridiculous, as much splatter rubbish teaches us. A horror film should not make people laugh or disturb, but make them think. It is true that there is also a splatter scene in «Suspiria», namely the bloody ‘open-hearted’ murder of Pat, but it is a shocking and ultimately unrealistic element, made to make it clear that, with «Suspiria», Dario Argento has decided to cross the border.
In fact, his previous films, the so-called ‘animal trilogy’ and the famous «Deep Red» (Profondo rosso in Italian), are giallo films (thrillers, an Italian sub-genre), which, although seasoned with bloody ingredients, are still thrillers. It is true that in «Suspiria» there is still the classic Dario Argento-style twist, or the final understanding of an initial impression [the meaning of the words shouted by Pat in the rain, ed.], but the thriller, by investigating the girl’s death, remains in the background and fades away, while a narrative emerges in which logic and rationality have little to do with it.
A passage from giallo to horror, but above all, from the real to the supernatural.
But what kind of horror film does Dario Argento make? First of all, it is technically perfect. For example, one immediately notices that the actors’ work is great: the protagonist, Jessica Harper, is striking for her elegant and somewhat boyish bearing, but the rest of the cast is no less so, especially the two most talented and experienced actresses, Joan Bennett [as Madame Blanche, ed.] and Alida Valli [as Miss Tanner, ed.]. Moreover, the direction is masterful, virtuous and involving. The Goblin soundtrack is penetrating and obsessive. Luciano Tovoli’s photography, in old Technicolor®, gives the film a unique chromaticism: red is the dominant tone, accompanied by black, the colours of blood and Hell; the other primaries – blue and yellow -, are also very evident; all very saturated, all often in opposition, so as to create a hallucinating and unnatural space. Finally, the space is defined by a high-level scenographic structure, curated by Giuseppe Bassan, based on defined geometries and a bizarre yet successful interpenetration of different styles.
There is a lot of ‘contaminated’ art in «Suspiria». Undoubtedly, the most obvious artistic reference is Art Nouveau, which with its sinuous forms, but also with its marked and unnatural use of colours, together with spatial deformation, links the film to German (Nolde, Kirchner) and French (Matisse, Derain) expressionism, but also to Mondrian. The perception of colour, in particular, takes place here beyond sensitive reality, in an almost ‘metaphysical’ sense, and this term inevitably leads us to our beloved De Chirico, spokesman for metaphysical painting, with his disorientated architecture suspended in time. The dissolution of traditional space-time coordinates finally leads us to Escher, the well-known creator of illusory and paradoxical architectures, who is also explicitly mentioned in the address of the dance school [Escher Strasse, ed.]. Everything contributes to defining a surreal, mysterious, deeply emotional and fairy-tale space.
The fairytale setting
«Suspiria» is first and foremost a fairy tale. Not exactly like Disney’s, but not so different either. Without disturbing Propp, there are many typical fairytale elements in the film, starting with the setting [Freiburg is on the edge of the Black Forest, ed.] and continuing with the characters, with the sweet innocent princess, the wicked old witch and so on. Dario Argento himself mentions Disney’s «Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs» as a source of inspiration, but connections can also be found in Carroll’s «Alice in Wonderland» and, to recall something more ancient, the Grimm brothers’ «Hänsel and Gretel» or the Slavic legends about Baba Yaga.
In short, «Suspiria» is a ‘black’ fairy tale, although not exactly dark, but rather multicoloured, psychedelic. It should be noted, however, that the oldest versions of fairy tales are all a little ‘black’, since they reflect an arcane world, filled with violence and still characterised by a primitive pagan undergrowth, with its rituals and magic.
Like many fairy tales, this one is basically a sort of initiation rite, in which the attainment of adulthood passes through a series of trials to be overcome, dangers to be faced, and, above all, through the discovery of one’s own being and of the horrible aspects of humanity. The script, with some childish situations, underlines this fairy-tale element, which should have been accentuated by the age of the pupils, originally thought to be little more than children, but then made older by production requirements.
On closer inspection, however, there is one difference with fairy tales: there is no Prince Charming. «Suspiria» is in fact an almost entirely female film, where the male figures are mostly in the background. It is no coincidence that the film is dominated by Art Nouveau, which is in itself a very feminine and sensual artistic movement. The dance academy, on closer inspection, shows itself as a ‘hive’, a sort of hyper-competitive microcosm, dominated at least apparently by women, with all their vices and virtues.
And it is here where the witches appear: we are in a dance school, also because dance recalls certain esoteric tribal rites linked to witchcraft. Even the Goblin’s music, so disturbing but also seductive, echoes states of trance, with a rhythm typical of the occult rituals known as the Sabbath.
But then, who are witches? Are they really evil and possessed people or simply fragile and mentally disturbed creatures? In order to understand it, we are helped by the speeches of the two luminaries, in which we can see an evident deepening of the script; on the one hand the ‘psychological’ aspects of the question are made explicit [Professor Mandel’s speech, ed.] and on the other hand the more ‘anthropological’ aspects [Professor Milius’s speech, ed.]. After all, they are two sides of the same coin: the darkness of the unconscious, with its archetypes, is also the darkness of society, in which Evil is ‘structured’ in ‘academic’ form, and looms everywhere, superhuman and invisible. This is represented in an exceptional way in the famous scene of the death of the blind pianist, in a powerfully neoclassical Königsplatz, an interesting masculine graft in a film which, as we have said, is all about women.
And finally we come to our Susy, who in her path of investigation, growth or initiation, as she likes to call it, enters the bowels of the earth, not by chance crossing a door identified with the iris, a flower with a well-known esoteric meaning. The girl enters the recondite meanderings of the world, studded with arcane symbols, and thus discovers what lies behind the ‘real’. Susy catches a glimpse of the witches’ ‘congress’ and defeats the demonic black queen, miraculously saving herself from the ‘final stake’.
Susy’s mocking smile is nothing more than the slightly naive smile of someone who thinks it was all a bad dream. But was it really just a dream?
The poster comes from the website https://www.imdb.com/ and can be found at the following link https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076786/mediaviewer/rm546442240/
These images are protected by copyright and are shown for illustrative purposes only, without any commercial purpose.