Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Suspiria (1977)

Country: ITALY

Dario Argento's Suspiria

As each new piece of cinematic excrement is ejected from the mind of Dario Argento I begin to think that Suspiria might have been a fluke. Each successive Argento picture is puked up onto a wounded and insulted fan base, one which has no option but to retreat into the mists of time to remind themselves why they liked Argento’s films in the first place. This period is generally recognised as being the 1970’s. There has developed a rose tinted view of this decade in horror circles; propagated by those who were around at the time (unfortunately this generation pretty much still sets the parameters when it comes to horror discourse) and their nostalgic agendas to tell us it was better in their day. Argento directed six films in the 1970’s, three of them (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, and Suspiria) were very good, the other three (Cat O Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and The Five Days of Milan) were poor to average. Even in Argento’s decade of peak creativity he only had a strike rate of 50%. The 1980’s was even more frustrating, a series of the films that were impressive in part, but failures as a whole. Argento has proven himself to be a mediocre filmmaker, time has shown him to make more poor and dissatisfying films than good ones. So what makes Suspiria such an exceptional film? The answer of course lies in the talents he surrounded himself by. There are three key elements to Suspiria, which if extracted, would damage the film irrevocably.

The first is the influence of Daria Nicolodi. Her interest in witchcraft and the occult, the family anecdotes that formed the centre of the idea, and her writing of the screenplay is vital. This is the only film of Argento’s upon which Nicolodi had a major creative influence, and it just so happens to be one of his best. The second is the stunning aural assault of Goblin’s soundtrack. The third is Luciano Tovoli’s saturated cinematography; it might have been Argento’s idea to use the 3 strip Technicolor printing process, but it was Tovoli who had to light the scenes. The removal of any one of these aspects would be fatal to Suspiria. Argento brought the set pieces, and one cannot fault his use of camera here, these sequences achieve a brilliance that Argento would never repeat. But therein lies the reason why Suspiria is such an exceptional film in a mediocre career; the strength of the collaborators. Ironically Suspiria is sometimes included by scholars as evidence for Argento’s authorial stamp, but in fact this film totally opposes the auteur theory, and it is the strongest proof that Argento is not an auteur.

A great deal of the success of the film lies in the manner in which Argento draws upon the uncanny. This is one of numerous allusions to Freudian psychoanalytics that litter Argento’s films. Argento invests the opening scenes in and around Munich airport with a sepulchral atmosphere, danger lurking in the most unexpected places; the automatic doors for example swish closed with eerie menace. When Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) makes it outside the rain and wind lashes her frail form before she embarks on a hellish taxi journey. The overflowing storm drains, and barely glimpsed figure fleeing in the words add multiple layers of disquiet. Also of note here is the way in which the sound design works; switching from diegetic to non-diegetic makes us aware of a manipulating omniscient force (this is of course the filmmakers) but it also establishes instantly the reach and powers of the witches coven. This technique is extended most successfully in the set piece which sees the blind pianist meet his fate in an empty plaza. Though this sequence pales in comparison to the audacious double murder that opens the film.

The ballet school in Freiburg is a nightmarish space replete with labyrinthine passageways, secret entrances, a maggot infested attic, and a room full of barb wire for anyone whose curiosity gets the better of them. The architecture is decadent and self indulgent. It is presided over by a severe matriarchal presence, all of whom belong to the secret coven. These cruel matriarchs are powerful enough to use men, who in this film are weak, ineffectual, and easily manipulated. They are led by an ancient witch; The Mother of Sighs, Elaina Marcos, a rotting hag who controls events through her pliable minions. Despite the fact that Argento favours aesthetics over plot, the structure of Suspiria is not dissimilar to the gialli in which he specialised. Banyon is a foreigner in a new and frightening environment, she also takes on the role of the amateur detective in order to root out the mystery, in many ways Suspiria dramatises the incursion of the supernatural into the narrative strategies of the giallo. Although the narrative is slight, the mystery at the heart of the film is a strong unifying force, and even allows Argento one or two moments of self-reflexivity. It is also interesting to note the fascistic undertones of the coven, an appropriate stance considering the weight of history on that region of Germany. The film has the hysterical tenor of a fairy tale, a fable of caution which brings with it aspects of Germanic folklore. Fairy tales achieve resonance through their conclusions, and its only right that Suspiria should build to a fitting climax with heavy doses of stylisation. This is an emotionally hollow triumph of technicality.
© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Very interesting and well argued piece here, Shaun. We differ on a couple of things (I think Four Flies on Grey Velvet is excellent, and I probably prefer Argento's 80's work to his 70's), but by and large I concur with everything you have to say about Suspiria as an experience, which is certainly a masterpiece, and a highlight of Argento's career.

    I do find interesting your proposal that this film works as evidence against Argento as an auteur. I wholeheartedly disagree, but I suppose it also has to do with the approach one takes towards measuring an "auteur". Everything you say about Nicolodi's screenplay, Tovoli's photography, and Demon's score is true, and yet Argento at the end of the day chooses both the material and the collaborators he works with, and if one thinks of an auteur within the classical model of a director who works with consistent themes and subtexts (certainly the psychoanalytics you speak of fall into this) as well as a recurring aesthetic means of mining and highlighting these concerns (the rich, baroque lighting here would again turn up in films not lit by Tovoli, to even greater effect I would argue; and Goblin would go on to score many films by Argento), then certainly one could look at Suspiria, and its place within Argento's career, and find plenty of room to argue for the "authorial stamp" that you speak of.

  2. Remains one of my favorite Argento's, along with Opera. These two are the only two Argento movies I really love. The others I find faults with, but these two stick as genuine articles.

    Completely agree about the opening sequences in the airport, those are the first few scenes that set the mood of the film, you immediately get the feeling like you are in a strange new world.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys, always appreciated :-)

    @ Drew - The first thing I'd say Drew, is that we dont know who choose who. It is possible that Nicolodi chose Argento, after all they were lovers. It seems highly likely that she would have gone to him with her concept. Up to this point Argento had not made a horror film, I believe Nicolodi is the explanation for why he traversed this territory. The problem with the 'Auteur Theory' and why I dont prescribe too it (in my reviews I use the director as a shorthand, it would just be too mind numbing to list every technician) is that one needs to see these themes and concerns develop throughout an oeuvre. Argento would use rich baroque lighting in some of his films, but not all. His 1973 historical comedy film THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN puts a spanner in the 'auteur' works. The development of his themes are inconsistent, in fact they have regressed rather than developed. In order for Argento to be an auteur in the classical sense, one should be able to map out a consistently developing set of themes and concerns over every single one of his films. No film, or screenplay, can be omitted from this. It can be done over a few films, but not all.

  4. Well, Argento is a unique case because the span of his career that I feel could possibly be argued for auteurism (70's - 80's; I'm leaving the rest out of the conversation as not a single film after Opera is worth a flip, but that's a whole other ball of wax) can be roughly separated into two groups: the supernatural horror film (Suspiria, Inferno, Phenomena) and the Giallo (Deep Red, Tenebrae, The Bird w/Crystal Plumage etc.), which definitely throws a kink into things. I would personally argue that each group shows a defined development of style and aesthetics (which we both of course agree takes precedence over most other content for Argento), and I'd also argue that there is a (admittedly smaller) degree of thematic development, or at least consistency, in the two groups as well (dealing with the psychoanalytics, obsessions, phobias), which obviously not everyone has to agree with.

    You're right that we don't know who approached who regarding the screenplay, but I'm not sure that it matters. Some of the most celebrated "classical auteurs" (Hawks just for example) hopped around genres and rarely wrote their own screenplays, and still imprinted their stylistic and/or thematic signatures onto various masterpieces. But this is probably getting a little off track here.

    Just to be clear, I'm not even sure that I'd necessarily argue for Argento as an auteur strictly in the classical sense - as I said, his body of work is unique, and he certainly has one of the most disjointed oeuvre's ever - but I do hold his 70's & 80's stuff dear, and find them to be of the personal and visionary nature that I intrinsically connect to the essence of auteurism.

  5. Excellent post Shaun. Admittedly I've only seen a couple of Argento's films, but this sticks out by a mile. Very much style over substance here, but when it's this stylish, it's hard not to love it.

    Interesting comments on auteur. :) It's a highly problematic theory far too often misused.

  6. I think dividing Argento's films into those two distinct groups is helpful when approaching some of his films. I certainly agree that Argento has persistent themes and concerns (a crisis in masculinity, especially in his 70's films for example), memory, vision, attitudes to art and culture, gender. In the case of his gialli many of these themes are already inbuilt within the genre. I think its always important to explore to what extent genre forms the thematic basis of a film. For me a discussion of genre is far more illuminating than the minefield of authorship. Argento's career is disjointed as you point out, but the auteur theory rests on a completist conception of a director (this is its major weakness). I hold many of his films dear as well, but it becomes increasingly important in recent times to offer reasons for Argento's decline. Authorship may once have been a strong defence for Argento, but now its untenable in my view.

    Thanks for stopping by Liam and for your kind words. I totally agree about the style over substance, and in this case it works brilliantly well. I'm with you on the auteur stuff.

  7. I see what you're saying about the genre informing the themes in Argento's Giallo's, but I guess what I'm saying (what I've been saying) is that in Argento's case, looking at and rigidly defining a developed set of themes and concerns takes a backseat to the aesthetic manner used to bring them out. You know, the whole "style over substance" thing.

    I think Michal Mann is an apt comparison for my point (I tend to think of Mann as a quintessential auteur). Take a look at his movies - he is constantly working in genres with built-in themes that are rarely deviated from, and yet his style is undeniable. With Mann it is not so much about "developing" these themes per se, but rather the singular aesthetic and stylistic means used to highlight them. This isn't to say that there aren't thematic intersections and consistencies in his career (there are), or that Mann isn't attracted to certain genres because of certain elements (he of course is), and this is where I'm coming from with Argento: I think it's unfair to simply say Argento's Giallos (again, speaking strictly 70's-80's here) are defined by the genre's themes and that's it, when there is (at least to me) a consistently unique manner and worldview brought to these films. And my feelings on this are even magnified regarding his supernatural work, where there is much less of that genre framework present.

    I guess at the end of the day we'll probably just have to agree to disagree, even though to be perfectly honest after all of this I'm still not entirely sure where I fall. I mean, one could easily say (as I think you basically have) that the nose dive Argento's career made after the 80's nulls any consideration as an auteur, and I'd probably have a tough time arguing that. All I was ever saying was that the three points in your original piece shouldn't necessarily be looked upon as strikes against auteurism. It's an interesting debate for sure (and just for the record, I'm not one of these guys running around slapping the auteurist label on any ole' director that I like; it's kind of the opposite.)

  8. Yes I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one Drew, but I very much appreciate you taking up the baton and expanding the debate. Theories are after all just that, there is no empirical truth in them, and they are merely critical tools too assist a certain reading. It's interesting that you never see a filmmaker refer to themselves as an auteur


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