The bodies of women are battlefields, warring factions bitterly contesting everything from their anatomy to their symbolic meaning. Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s abrasive, overwhelming 1977 horror classic, takes on those same bodies — and their historic baggage — as its subject. They contort and writhe across the screen, twine together into complex architectures, and flicker in ghostly afterimages at the edge of seeing, fumes given off by some Platonic Ideal of womanhood burning its way into reality.
Suspiria’s preoccupation with women’s bodies is best understood through the lens of a single scene: the dancing of the lead role in the fictional show Volk, first by Olga (Elena Fokina), who abandons her attempt in fear and frustration and quits the company, and then by Susie (Dakota Johnson).
[Ed. note: this post contains spoilers for Suspiria.]
Between the two performances, the women’s hands and feet are conjoined by a magical link forged by the dance company’s artistic director and choreographer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Every move Susie makes, Olga is forced by their sympathetic connection to imitate. Since only their extremities are linked, the steps of the dance begin to tear Olga’s body apart.
In a sealed room walled in mirrors, Olga is dragged through the steps of Susie’s rendition. Bones crack. Joints rip. In one memorable shot, the bewitched dancer slides along the wall cheek to cheek with her own reflection as her jaw pops from its socket and teeth protrude in an ogrish leer. The longer Susie’s dance continues, the more twisted and broken Olga’s body becomes.
The dance siphons and transfers her skill, strength and vital essence from her body to Susie’s. In the end, nothing is left but a puddle of urine and a drooling, twisted wreck. The witches who impale her body and bear it away do so with sharpened silver rib bones, symbols of God’s theft of Adam’s rib, later used to create Eve. The process of perfecting Susie, preparing her for the ritual at the film’s climax, requires the other woman to break.
The dynamic is familiar to anyone who’s dwelled on images of idealized femininity, and on what they cost the women who don’t fit them. The more elaborate we make our idols, the more backs have to bend to support their weight. Suspiria pounds at the theme: Marketa (Olivia Ancona) suffers a violent seizure when Madame Blanc transfers her ability to perform impressive leaps to Susie. Sara (Mia Goth) is crippled and bewitched for threatening to interfere with Susie’s debut performance.
This ugly design isn’t in service to Susie herself; her body is intended as a vessel for the will of the deformed and dying Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton again, this time under much heavier prosthetics), her soul and self to be consigned to oblivion so that the dying matron can live on.
The ritual by which Markos hopes to achieve this end brings the entire academy together like a vast machine of skin, bone, muscle, and fat. The dancers, hypnotized, link arms and other joints to form a sort of human chapel, a visual metaphor of their exploitation in pursuit of Markos’s immortality.
The film draws a direct parallel between this esoteric endeavor and the much larger and more terrifying human program of the Holocaust. At that time, winter labor camp censuses ran so long that hundreds died during the count, undertakings in which the bodies of the exploited and oppressed were nothing more than coal to fuel the engine of Aryan supremacy.
Suspiria’s bleak color palette and empty shots of Berlin’s brutalist architecture have few discernible links to the characters, whose intimate warmth toward one another creates unhelpful friction, especially when compared to Argento’s original. Guadagnino’s movie is, in many ways, more thematically interesting than Argento’s — which at its worst flirts with titillating trashiness in its loving depictions of stabbed and bloodied girls — but a more innovative, less sentimental director than Guadagnino, whose handle on spectacle is tenuous at best, might have made something of the tonal changes he employs.
However muddled the execution, Guadagnino’s metaphor finds uncomfortable echoes in our world of rampant anorexia, diet obsession, and unequal wages. In the coven’s unhealthy obsession with Susie, their covetous touching of her body, their indifference toward her personhood, it’s hard not to see our culture’s attitudes toward feminine fame and beauty.
Suspiria digs into the way women are trained to uphold the very cultural ideals that oppress us. It shows women collaborating in their own destruction, so eager for a taste of perfection that they’ll cast aside even their own thoughts. It’s an engine in service to nothing but our worst urges and our own continued misery.
Guadagnino’s film begins and ends in the mirror room, its most powerfully uncomfortable image spent before the halfway mark of its two-hour-and-thirty-minute runtime. In Olga’s tangled limbs and ruined grin, though, in the crack of breaking bones and the dull, wet thud of meat on glass, is a truth spellbinding in its morbidity. For perfect women to exist, for immaculate faces to grin from magazine covers and loom in the darkness of theaters, all other women must suffer.
Gretchen Felker-Martin is a horror writer with Thuban Press, 2dCloud and others. Follow her on Twitter@scumbelievable.