A thread tying all this frenzy together is Guadagnino’s desire for the very witchy “Suspiria,” released nationwide on Friday, to be seen as a feminist horror movie. The director told Yahoo that he intended for it to be a “fierce showcase of the female artistic experience.” But some critics have taken issue with the portrayal of that fierceness, arguing that it doesn’t serve women as well as he might believe it does.
So how exactly does Guadagnino use witchcraft to take aim at the patriarchy? Let us discuss in the format “Suspiria” announces in its introductory text — “Six Acts and an Epilogue.”
Act I: So where and when are we?
Our journey begins in October 1977, the year Dario Argento’s original “Suspiria” came out and the same month members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a Lufthansa flight headed to Germany in an attempt to negotiate the release of imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders. Guadagnino keeps referencing this Cold War era event without folding it into the plot. The only time it is explicitly relevant is when a matron says that a distressed former student — Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), the first of a few to suddenly disappear — might be part of the far-left militant group.
Perhaps Guadagnino intended for viewers to somehow draw a parallel between the radical group and the witches. Or maybe he just tried too hard to make it feel like 1977. Either way, there are a whole lot of historical elements, including a Holocaust survivor — and Patricia’s psychiatrist — named Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, disguised as an old man).
Act II: The film tries to reclaim the label “witch” …
In some ways, “Suspiria” depicts witches the way other Western works have: women who band together to fight oppressive forces. There is an undercurrent of motherhood that runs throughout the film, and three ancient figures lead the mythology: Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears) and Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), the last of whom is served by the Markos Dance Academy coven.
In real life, the term “witch” has been used to discredit and silence women (e.g. the Salem witch trials) but it has also been reclaimed by real and fictional witches alike. Such stories feel especially relevant today, when men investigated for crimes have cried “witch hunt!” to similarly discredit those less powerful than them.
Toppling the patriarchy works a little differently in a story like “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” a recent Netflix series about a teenage witch (Kiernan Shipka) who hesitates to sign her name in the Book of the Beast, a witch baptism of sorts. This would essentially require her to sign her soul away to the Dark Lord, or Satan, a thinly veiled representation of the patriarchy. In this way, the show makes it seem more feminist for her to break with her fellow witches than to stand by them.
Act III: And they’re seeking revenge
The coven takes special interest in Susie when she arrives at the academy, presumably because she can serve them, and, therefore, Mater Suspiriorum. This plot culminates to a bloody climax that retroactively illuminates what the coven has been trying to achieve all along.
But David Kajganich loads the screenplay with allusions to the coven’s broader motivation, which involves getting back at those who have wronged them. The only men in the movie, seeing as Swinton plays one man, are a pair of police officers put under a spell and consequently humiliated. At another point, a matron reprimands Klemperer for not believing women who tell him the truth: “You tell them they have delusions!”
Act IV: They’re very powerful …
Guadagnino grants these women power, which, on paper, fits with his feminist goal. The witches’ power knows no bounds. Madam Blanc (also Swinton), the academy’s artistic director, can turn Susie’s dreams into bloodcurdling nightmares. She and the other matrons can inflict injuries on dancers whenever and wherever they want — as in an especially gruesome scene when a dancer is completely mutilated. Which brings us to …
Act V: And do horrible things
Guadagnino told Jezebel that “true feminism is something that doesn’t shy away from the complexity of the female identity.” Complexity in “Suspiria” means that women can be sympathetic figures, such as when they are mistreated by a society that favors men, while also being horrible, such as when the academy’s students mysteriously disappear. But how Guadagnino handles the latter is where the argument lies.
Act VI: Wait a minute, is this movie feminist?
The witches frequently inflict or inspire violence — their actions, after all, are what make this a horror movie. But some critics say this makes it seem like a woman with a great amount of power is someone who should be feared. The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan put it this way:
“There’s also a disturbing, if unintended, undercurrent of misogyny, epitomized not only by the theme of witchcraft (a manifestation of men’s fear of women’s power, if ever there was one), but in the film’s frequent nudity and violent objectification of women’s bodies. Two scenes feature female characters being grotesquely contorted by supernatural forces. There’s a thin line between indicting the male gaze, as Guadagnino claims to have intended, and reveling in it.”
This polarizing fever dream of a movie will likely turn out to be the “Mother!” of 2018, especially when debating whether its depiction of feminism succeeds. This can get exhausting! And so we turn to the Latin phrase from which Argento plucked the movie’s title: “suspiria de profundis,” or “sighs from the depths.”