Mother Isn't Quite Herself Today
In this somewhat unremarkable year for movies, it’s horror that provided the images which stuck with us. There’s Annie Graham, hovering in mid-air and sawing her own head off with piano wire in Hereditary. There’s Red, looking like a family sized jar of spaghetti sauce exploded inside his car, maniacally grinning at a vision of his girlfriend, smoking and looking completely indifferent to the path of bloody destruction he tore avenging her murder in Mandy. None will stick in the sub-conscious quite like Luca Guadagnino’s wholly unique take on Suspiria, which is just one unsettling image after another. Resembling the original only in character names and setting (and a brief appearance by Jessica Harper), even without the images of fingernails dragging across wooden floors, open mouths gasping for air, and bodies contorted beyond all human capability, it’s a stunning, unforgettable take on a twisted sort of maternal love, and the guilt it brings.
A not small number of male viewers have pointed out—with the ubiquitous “gotcha!” smugness—that for a movie that purports to be “feminist,” there’s an awful lot of female on female violence. That is true, and the fact that none of the keepers of the dark secrets of the Helena Markos Dance Academy are men is what makes it a feminist movie. Despite being written and directed by men, it’s not a movie that’s in any way tailored to appeal to the male eye. Save for the strange costumes the dancers wear for the climactic “Volk” dance, which resemble nothing if not ropes of intestines draped over their bodies, the characters dress in modest, even occasionally frumpy, shapeless clothing—the kind of clothing you’d wear if you didn’t have to worry about the pressure of constantly looking attractive and fuckable, where you could spend all your time focusing on yourself and the commitment to your work. Where other movies would tease the potential for same sex hookups, here, the bonds the girls form with each other are strictly sisterly, with all the undercurrents of competition and envy that come with that. Susie’s aggressive dancing is sexual, but not sexy.
Men under 40 seem to be non-existent in this world—no brothers, no boyfriends, no one. The small handful of men the witches do encounter don’t frighten or intimidate them—in fact, at various points in the movie they’re all shown in positions of humiliation, including a scene in which some of the witches gleefully mock the genitals of a police detective they’ve put under some sort of trance. They don’t care. They’re not scared. They know they’re more powerful than them.
Though the heroine (I was going to qualify that with quotes, given the ending, but no, she’s the heroine), Susie (Dakota Johnson, taking long, no looking back steps away from the 50 Shades series) is a pretty young woman, and a naif who’s flown directly to Germany from her Mennonite family’s farm in Ohio, the film is pointedly uninterested in her sexuality, or “coming of age,” or any of the typical directions you’d assume a movie like this to go, especially if it was made with a traditionally male horror movie audience in mind.
Susie, her mentor, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), and psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), are all struggling with guilt, largely about their failure to act. Susie is haunted by her mother’s labored, dying breaths, but it’s strongly suggested that the corpse was barely cold before she took off to Europe to study dance. Madame Blanc, perhaps a bit more maternal than the other witches at the school, but still bound by duty to the trio of mothers that rule their coven, seems have to grown weary and guilt-stricken over setting up her students to be the potential new young vessel for the grotesque Helena Markos to take over, with disastrous, gruesome results. Dr. Klemperer, in what occasionally feels like a different movie playing at the same time, is wracked with guilt after refusing to heed his wife’s warnings about the rise of fascism in Germany. The witches know the pain he carries, and they use it against him, digging into the most secrets part of himself. “When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them,” one of them shouts, in an all too timely rage. “You tell them they have delusions!”
Madame Blanc, in her own cool, slightly detached manner, has developed some level of affection for her students, particularly guileless, completely devoted to the dance Susie, and Susie, in turn, is eager to win her approval. There are a number of mother-child dynamics at the school: the students and the teachers, the teachers and Helena Markos, Helena Markos and the Three Mothers. Sometimes it creates a sense of warmth and stability, a shelter from the gray outside world, torn apart by terrorism. Whatever’s happening, it’s happening over there. You’re safe here. Other times, it triggers a rage so immense that a student’s body is twisted and mangled by invisible hands. She’s rendered to an unrecognizable ruin, like the young women who dared to defy Mother’s will before her.
I wish I could put it in a more eloquent way, but if you’re a woman and you have a complicated relationship with your mother, this is some very heavy shit.
When Susie reveals herself near the end of the movie—somewhat bafflingly—to be Mother Suspiriorum, she punishes the other witches not for decades, perhaps even centuries of murder, but for treating Helena Markos as her equal, and for letting a lesser witch call the shots in the coven. Her punishment is swift, and staggeringly brutal, yet she shows mercy to those few witches who sided with Madame Blanc in protest of serving Markos’ needs over the needs of the rest of the coven. She will show tenderness in granting a quick and painless exit to the girls the witches tormented in Markos’ name, and later in erasing Dr. Klemperer’s memories of the event. Nevertheless, her will is exacted, and to help her she calls forth the most powerful, unstoppable force of all: Death itself. Though it’s not apparent unless you stay for the closing credits, in an all too appropriate and haunting touch, Death is played by Malgosia Bela…who plays Susie’s mother.