Film & TV

Political Fear and Loathing in Suspiria

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria (Amazon Studios)
Guadagnino’s latest art hoax showcases ‘nasty women.’

Suspiria, the new film hoax by Luca Guadagnino (the fraud who perpetrated last year’s Call Me by Your Name), is a new kind of political epic. It uses the same plot as Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria, but Guadagnino’s 152-minute length outdistances it. The story of American dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), who in 1977 Berlin joins a dance troupe that fronts for a witches’ coven, now parallels the real-life terrorist exploits of the Red Army Faction in 1977. Guadagnino updates the plot with horror-movie clichés and modern political conceits. Horror movies are generally felt to express suppressed desires, but Guadagnino’s Suspiria is an epic that shows the feminist fear and loathing rampant in today’s politics.

Guadagnino is nothing if not trendy — but he’s artsy-trendy. Some conservative filmgoers will probably prefer to ignore his lockstep with liberal tenets and see Suspiria as just another collection of generic horror-film devices. But consider this: The film’s production began in late 2016 and early 2017, which dates to the American presidential election that roiled feminist politics. Guadagnino’s timely homage stays consistent with Argento’s original intention to show a triumvirate of witches who “manipulate world events on a global scale.”

How else can we interpret the film’s using explicit details of the 1977 Baader-Meinhof terrorists (a.k.a. the Red Army Faction)? Guadagnino links the far-left group’s horrors to today’s post-9/11 trauma, which some leftist artist types still approve as the deserved comeuppance for Western imperialism. Those political disasters enflame a particular class of art-elite women such as those whom Susie encounters, led by Guadagnino’s muse, Tilda Swinton, playing a debauched dancer in the style of Martha Graham or Pina Bausch. This cold-hearted Suspiria uncannily repeats the incivility of today’s far-left opportunists. At the Marko Tanz Theater where Susie is indoctrinated, two of the mistresses (Renée Soutendijk and Angela Winkler) bear a striking physical resemblance to Hillary Clinton and especially to Nancy Pelosi during her rant last week at the 92nd Street Y, New York’s hotbed of leftism, in which she said, “If there’s some collateral damage for some others who do not share our view, well, so be it.”

Each of Guadagnino’s films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name) shows him playing court jester to the effete upper class — invoking its fear and loathing, peccadilloes and transgressions. After Susie’s dark, grueling, physical, and psychic training, she tells a Holocaust survivor, “We need guilt and shame but not yours,” and the combo of curse and blessing is Guadagnino’s concession to art-world gatekeepers. Suspiria makes a showcase of bourgeois perversity and blasphemy by surrounding Susie with a cast of sinister freaks who all boast art-world credentials, from model Alek Wek to Sylvie Testud and Ingrid Caven as part of Guadagnino’s queer Eurotrash art-cinema scheme, also waggishly blaspheming Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972).

The film’s lesbian undercurrent —expressed through dubbed, disembodied voices, fragmented compositions, and abrupt edits — recalls the eerie dankness of Nicolas Roeg’s Venice in Don’t Look Now but without the artistry and visual-kinetic panache. Even Bruce LaBruce’s lesbian satire The Misandrists was sharper, smarter, and at least funny. Guadagnino succumbs to gross spectacle: His centerpiece is the ritual murder of dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) — complete with bone-crunching, sinew-ripping, fluid-dripping, pretzel-like contortions. This scene is prelude to the climactic extravaganza of a blood-drenched, shakey-cam dance orgy meant to summarize female craziness through Argento’s theme of personal and global desecration. (The “nasty women” theme of the Women’s March was never so appropriate.)

Swinton’s Madame Blanc, one of three transsexual roles she plays, is awed that Susie comes from an Amish heritage (shown through convoluted flashbacks) yet has “left religious thinking behind.” Swinton as Dr. Josef Klemperer deduces that the troupe’s other sacrificial females profess a “constructed mythology,” and he relates religion to questionable female delusions. “Illusion is their craft. People can organize themselves to promote change and call it magic.” Thus, Guadagnino lays out his formula of modern global politics overcoming religion. (For contrast, see Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, which transforms the vampire genre. It explores fear and loathing throughout Britain’s female literary tradition but is enriched with complex Catholic morality.)

Guadagnino turns the liberal artiste’s religious and moral skepticism into spectacle; in art, all is permissible, which explains the film’s deliberate, ritualistic sacrileges. But art is also defiled. Swinton’s perverse impresario proclaims, “Two things dance can never do again: beautiful and cheerful. We must break the nose of beauty.” That is Suspiria’s ultimate point.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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