Monday, January 14, 2008

Interpreting a classic.

The following review is indended for and inspired by the nice folks at Stacie Ponder's Final Girl Film Club.

Three sisters they are,
of one mysterious household;
and their paths are wide apart;
but of their dominion there is no end.

"Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow"
~Thomas De Quincey~

Dario Argento's 1977 visual masterpiece "Suspiria" tells the story of a young ballet student's terrifying adventures at a European dance academy. She must quickly unravel the mystery of the violent deaths that have begun to plague the school before she finds herself sharing a similar fate.

The film is set in the German city of Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest, and the director takes full advantage of the gothic and neo-classical architectural treasures of Ludwig's Bavaria. At the start of the film, when Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) transitions from the bright, modern Munich airport lobby out into a night assailed by lightning flashes and torrential rain, she begs a local cabbie for help with her bags. We aren't surprised when she gets none. After all, this is the fairytale woods that the Brothers Grimm were always warning you about, Suzy. From now on, you're on your own.

Almost at once, our heroine encounters resistance. When she arrives beneath the crimson-swathed facade on the steps of the Tanz (Tony, to the decrement of one letter) Academy, drenched to the skin with her meager shawl twisting violently in the gale, she is barred entrance to the promised sanctuary. She witnesses a girl in distress, shouting something (a warning?) before the girl vanishes into the howling night. It is a quintessential fairytale crossroads-moment; the protagonist is offered one last chance to turn back...but Suzie has nowhere to go, and no way of knowing how high the stakes are if she proceeds.

High stakes indeed, for in a few moments, as we follow the doomed student who has fled the school, Argento shows us how far he's willing to up the ante. After the young woman reaches the apparent safety of a friend's (wildly stylized Deco) apartment, we are treated to one of the most vicious, uber-Guignol murder set-pieces ever constructed. Double-defenestration, stabbing, lynching and multiple impalements get the red stuff splashing in such high style that the viewer is left shocked, sickened, and breathless with admiration.

We're introduced to the rest of the major characters in short order, and many viewers are surprised to learn that although the movie is informed by the Giallo tradition (with all its attendant chauvinistic/misogynistic baggage), this is most definitely a women's picture. Well, maybe not as defined by George Cukor's RKO studio bosses, but certainly by what the Italian thriller-going audiences were used to seeing in the seventies. We meet the straight-backed, oddly Betsy Palmeresque Bavarian dance instructor Miss Tanner, high-bred American school administrator Madame Blanc, the appealingly sluttish and mercenary student Olga, and another ballet hopeful - squirrelly and secretive Sarah. Also mentioned, though never more than barely glimpsed, is the Academy Directress herself, Helene Marcos.

As the plot progresses, the director lavishes the proceedings with sanguinary flourishes, from the scarlet-saturated cinematography to the careful, bloody staging of his multiple murders, the viewer is not merely lit by the pulsing screen, but bathed in it. Rather than ring false or cheaply lurid, the deliberately hyper-real experience is wholly appropriate, and totally submersive.

Also abetting the other-worldliness of the enterprise is frequent musical collaborators "Goblin" (credited here as "The Goblins"), who provide some unforgettably nerve-wracking aural cues in layers of spare, dirge-like chords and spooky, ethereal chanting.

Suspiria has generated legions of fans over the years, many of them speculating on the future of the so-called "Three Mothers" saga. "Inferno" (1980) a less-than-stellar sequel provides some mythic underpinnings to the Mothers' machinations for those interested, and the last of the trilogy "Mother of Tears" was released this year.

One can spot some recurrent themes running through Suspiria that, in the context of the trinity that the trilogy features, provides some interesting - if perhaps unintentional - foreshadowing.

Note the triangular elevator light.

Another triangle in the scrollwork above the Academy entrance.

In the Munich square, our blind victim is surrounded on three sides by Greek and Romanesque neo-classical buildings. Each has a triangular pediment. Getting the picture? If you want to avoid the Mothers' power - stay away from triangles!

Also featured in triumvirate form are three snakes, identified by Olga's teasing claim that Christian names beginning with the letter 'S' signified the serpentine. Sonia is impaled, Sarah is slashed, and Suzy is stalked.

Soon are revealed the three irises (turn the blue one!), and not least of all, there are three iconic winged creatures that serve as a sort of supernatural shorthand for the mothers themselves. The swan, from a motif that appears in Sonia's apartment, may represent the Mother of Tears, the bat which attacks Suzy in the attic (Mater Tenebrarum?), and the peacock - The Bird with the Crystal Plumage - whose tail feathers are used to pierce the neck of his own patron witch. Tail feathers which, according to Greek myth (Helene Marcos was said to be a Greek immigrant) were decorated with the irises of Hera's fallen hundred-eyed hero, Argus.

Suspiria ranks so highly among fans precisely because its reliance on style and symbolism over practical plot conventions permits such a vast variety of potential interpretations. You'll revisit this movie a thousand times, for - like any good fairytale - the true horror of it only gets clearer with age.

The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum - Our Lady of Sighs. She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds. She wears no diadem. And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium. But she raises not her eyes; her head, on which sits a dilapidated turban, droops for ever, for ever fastens on the dust.


At 7:52 AM, January 14, 2008, Blogger Mike B. said...

Creepy, man. How did you know I was just this second on Jessica Harper's Wikipedia page? (I'd suddenly had a nostalgic craving for It's Garry Shandling's Show.)

At 2:02 PM, January 14, 2008, Blogger dreamrot said...

Wow! Very nice look at some of the mythological underpinnings of the movie.

At 4:05 PM, January 14, 2008, Blogger Bloody Mary said...

Another dozen or so things I didn't pick up on during my first two viewings...I'm really enjoying reading all the different perspectives of this month's Final Girl Film Club reviews!

At 4:23 PM, January 14, 2008, Blogger AE said...

Nice! I love the Brothers Grimm reading -- I thought of a fairy tale too when Sonia was running through the woods. And the description of Miss Tanner as "Betsy Palmeresque" is spot on.

At 4:09 PM, January 15, 2008, Blogger Alexander of the Winding Way said...

Ditto on the Betsy Palmer connection, I also thought the same thing. The fairytale thing somehow passed me by, but it seems like everyone else got it. The forest scene reminded me of the opening of countless Dracula films more than anything else. An innocent travelling through the forest, just in a slightly more modern carriage... Thanks for the informative review. Reading all of these is just making me want to watch it again and soon!


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