Tuesday, January 17, 2012

24. SUSPIRIA (1977)

I've seen this Dario Argento film many times, of course, and though I am always knocked for a loop by its stunning visual imagination, my feelings about it have been tempered over the years for two reasons. First of all, the storyline is seriously underbaked and derivative, with yet another protagonist struggling to remember some silly forgotten detail that is finally recalled by seeing something in plain view reflected in a mirror; and secondly, because it never fully recovers from the Technicolor shocks dealt out in its first ten minutes. There are reasons to continue watching, of course -- Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli are all wonderful, the images continually provoke a tantalizing atmosphere of sinister magic, and the dialogue has an acerbic wit not commonly found in Argento's work, which is why I believe Daria Nicolodi when she takes the lioness's share of the credit for the script, apart from the murder set-pieces which were Dario's specific contribution to story.

Watching the movie again, I noticed that this first film in Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy makes no reference to the other two Mothers, nor even the Three Mothers as a unity, leading one to surmise that Argento and Nicolodi hastily wove this mythos together when SUSPIRIA became a surprise international hit. Also, though most commentators identify "Elena" Markos as Mater Suspiriorum, she is plainly called Helena Markos, her only given sobriquet is "The Black Queen," and true to the first syllable of her name, she is described as having perished long ago in a fire. This is made more confusing given the presence within the Tanz Akademie dancing school of its wheezy Headmistress, who is evidently Helena Markos herself. Joan Bennett's character invokes Helena's dead spirit as part of a hex spell sent out to snoopy "American bitch" ballet student Suzy Banyon (Harper), though the Headmistress is lying prone in the room next door in some sort of outlined astral form that casts shadows and becomes corporealized as Suzy stabs her with a piece of art sculpture... recalling THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and also looking ahead to TENEBRAE.

Ultimately, I think SUSPIRIA is weakened by adhering more to sensation than to sense -- after all, even the mysterious requires a certain continuity -- but all these years later, it remains a singular experience. It's one of the few horror films powerful enough in its aura alone to solicit awe from its audience.

Viewed on DVD.


  1. I've always felt the ending to be too abrupt and unsatisfying. It would be interesting to see a coda similar to the end of Lisa And The Devil.

    But I thinks it's mainly that I don't want the film to end...

    Adhering more to sensation than to sense? That's Argento!!!

  2. I think the "derivative" nature of film is perhaps difficult to distinguish from its mythic/archetypal aspects when it's using stock characters and situations in a largely self-conscious way.

    Though I would agree that the links between Suspiria and the later Three Mothers films are not something particularly evident in Suspiria itself, I wonder if the Helena/Elena confusion could be down in part to the differences between Italian and English language pronunciations, as with the silent h in 'io ho paura'?

  3. Tim:

    While I can understand your growing reservations about Suspiria, and have shared certain of them from the beginning, I suspect you're wrong about the Three Mothers being a tacked-on after-the-fact concept. I'm sure you realize the film is named after De Quincey's sequel to *Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,* *Suspiria de Profundis.

    But as someone who loved De Quincey before ever peeping an Argento flick, I can tell you that details from different sections in the book are alluded to in the film -- not in any relevant or structurally reinforced way, but as yet more haphazard markers indicating Argento's interests. (The problem is that he can never give his metaphors and titles narrative and symbolic weight, but always seems to throw them into the stew of his story arbitrarily, redeeming them later through the sheer force of his camera movement, effects, extraneous details and filmic imagination.)

    The idea of the Three Mothers, of course, comes from "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow," which I've always imagined might be a particularly attractive prose poem to someone coming from 50s Italian culture, someone who has experienced a strong matriarchy, a binding sense of community that also leaves him feeling inadequate and perhaps even frightened over the fate of his own identity. I've always seen the "Three Mothers Responsible for All the Misery and Darkness in the World" as the flip side of Argento's sensual misogyny. It makes sense to me that he would identify with the concept without actually knowing how to ground it in the story. In that sense, all of Argento's story influences are extraneous and can be taken as arbitrary no matter how much they mean to him.

  4. Which brings me to my second thought about Suspiria (and please tell me if I'm being long-winded).

    I've always found it ironic that Argento began as a writer, because the dialog in even his best films is the most forced I've ever heard. It's even less realistic than that of Ed Wood because the characters aren't even slightly alive. At least certain of Wood's protags elicit your sympathy while speaking formulations so awkward they verge on difficult poetry. Whereas Argento's characters are simply personified functions, mechanical dolls out of a painting by Delvaux. Hitchcock might have called actors cattle, but Argento's characters seem to be conceptual cattle. If he were a novelist and had a grip on narrative causality, his work might be a little like that of Raymond Roussel, whose excellent prose employs a tone so mechanical that it's as if the narrator doesn't understand the story he's -- no, *it's* -- presenting and must proceed by alien instinct. Argento can be like that, too: an arachnid building a superficially intricate web.

    Argento is really a cartographer of beautiful and solipsistic nightmares, yet he is so clumsy at storytelling that his films are either brutally trite (because they're rote, without originality) or slapdash and full of inspired touches that have nothing to do with any conventional story.

    This suggests to me that Argento is at heart and should have remained *an experimental 60s filmmaker who alluded to genre, not tried to work within it. He became increasingly trapped by genre without having the slightest talent for mastering it, yet if he'd remained a kind of pulpy Resnais, he could have made his own creepy erotic version of Marienbad and Hiroshima. Perhaps he'd even have attracted better writers.

    When he is groping for a non-narrative continuity, as in Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, Four Flies and Profundo Rosso, his films veer out of reach and offer a tabloid-gripping experimentalism not to be found even in Bava's most perfect-yet-provisional microcosms: It is closer to a nouvelle vague if only the writing weren't insufferable.

    That's why the colors at the beginning of Suspiria have nothing to do with the real world -- because you're in a painting of the world and events within it only seem to be literal insofar as they're parodies of functional events. I'm not even sure A. knew he was doing it, and yet that sense of being in "the realm of the unreal" is why I love the entire beginning of Suspiria, up to and including the still you've used to illustrate your essay/entry.

  5. As I understand it, it was Daria Nicolodi who brought the De Quincey story to Argento's attention, suggesting "Suspiria" as a possible title. Argento found it an amazing word and accepted it; I have no idea if he actually read the story. The fact remains that SUSPIRIA itself makes no allusion to the Three Mothers and that Helena Markos is only referred to as "The Black Queen," never as Mater Suspiriorum. Indeed, as Latin to English translations go, "The Black Queen" bears a closer resemblance to "Mater Tenebrarum," but the whole trilogy is a mess of incoherent connections held together by interview comments rather than the films themselves.

    I find your comments about Argento to be pretty much dead on, though I don't agree that following your notes he would have "attracted better writers." On those occasions when he did attract better writers (Bernardino Zapponi on DEEP RED, Nicolodi on SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, T.E.D. Klein on TRAUMA), he wasn't terribly interested in keeping them, because his own ego insisted on usurping credit or meddling with their work until was earned. In general, he's had a hard time holding on to any of his really talented technical collaborators.

  6. Thanks so much for the additional points, observations and evidence in support of your original argument.

    Perhaps in reading about Suspiria, I've failed to pay attention to Nicolodi's bringing *Suspiria de Profundis* to Argento because his love of Poe and Baudelaire (whose portrait appears in the middle of A's Black Cat adaptation) seemed connected to De Quincey; even A's cats are named after Schumann's Dichterliebe, all of which suggests (I thought) a keen interest in decadent romantics, particularly those afflicted with insanity and/or addiction.

    This might be subjective on my part, but numerous scenes and details from *Suspiria* seem to allude to different parts of De Quincey's sequel and even the *Confessions* themselves: The etheric and omnipresent killer, whose hands alone are visible, could be SdP's "Dark Interpreter." That prose poem seems the very blueprint for Argento's killers in general, invariably gifted with supernatural powers and ubiquity at their most feeble (they can enter a speeding train after the victim flees it, only to stand in front of that same victim moments later, or seize them by the neck at the portal of their mind's bad dream).

    I'd also thought the Dark Interpreter's whisper to be a possible source for the whispering in the background of so many scenes in Suspiria ("Witch!," "La-la-la-la, la-la-la," etc.)

    The references to snakes seemed informed by De Quincey's Asiaphobia (often alluded to by Edward Said), which frequently linked sinister men and interiors with repeated images of reptiles. The elaborate arabesques and murals in Suspiria also seemed to incorporate De Quincey's descriptions of same; the rain of worms in the Institute echoes an image from the *Confessions*.

    Perhaps the influence I thought I traced has been imposed by my own associations. Still, the parallels seem striking, as does Argento's and De Quincey's mutual interest in atmosphere, detail and set pieces which remain free of narrative function.

    Your paraphrase that states I felt Argento's lot could have been improved by "following [my] notes" suggests I sound egotistical, which is regrettable; I apologize if I've given you that impression.

    All I meant was that A. might have gone in a more natural and therefore fruitful direction if, instead of trying to make commercial genre flicks, he had merely alluded to genre in more experimental films that featured his true strengths. Godard seems to have followed that path.

    Bava didn't need anything like that because (in my incredibly humble opinion) he was a master of nearly every form he tried, and because his understanding of literary adaptation and storytelling -- really, the art of narrative filmmaking as a whole -- seems so superior.

    But perhaps Bava also understood the importance of collaborators and didn't allow his vanity to interfere with the necessity of others' input. You'd know better than I.

    Depressing, to learn from you that A's vanity might have been responsible for his content-compromising descent, which seems to have led to his giving a potentially important film like *Mother of Tears* to writers known chiefly for bad Hollywood remakes.

  7. I love the interpretation of the Goblin vocals (Simonetti) being the wordings of De Quincey's Dark Interpreter!

    Also, so reference to you being egotistical was intended -- far from it! -- and I regret that my phrasing sent this false impression.

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  9. Interestingly upon repeat viewings I find myself in perfect alignment with your re-assessment of SUSPIRIA. I have had a similar reaction to almost all his work following this film...On the whole the plot line is indeed weak and derivative as are all the later works I've seen. I am still very partial to DEEP RED being his masterpiece because I find it much stronger on story AND a more EVEN film via its visual set pieces (more evenly distributed throughout THAT film than his other films). All his earlier movies have more story than any of his films after Suspiria, with the possible exception of TENABRAE which despite the famous Louma crane shot is a film that makes no sense within itself...The resolution makes no sense whatsoever. That said, I still find SUSPIRIA and TENABRAE to be masterfully well made and inspired at points. Hell, I still love his first 3 movies too...THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, CAT O' NINE TAILS and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. The same reassessment of OPERA is also due as it is even more crazed and deliriously directed than almost ALL his other films.

  10. When I first saw Suspiria it was on a rented copy from one of the VHS chain rentals back in the 80s. It was heavily censored/cut. [(Later I got a Un-cut beta copy of a Japanese Laser Disc transferred to VHS. (yeah, that was a chore.)]
    HERE'S THE BIZARRE PART. The same video chain also rented me a documentary about Argento. That documentary had all the censored scenes from Suspiria as part of 'how great Argento is". So the scenes are cut from the actual movie as too violent, but left in a documentary because, well, it's a documentary. The censor dogs at Blockbuster or whatever ignored a documentary...probably too boring.
    Oh, I love the Movie too. I own the 3 disc set with disc 3 being a soundtrack.