From the beginning, the Suspiria remake is intent on giving us its own vision of Dario Argento’s beloved 1977 horror classic. Both films revolve around a young woman named Susie—played by Jessica Harper in the original and Dakota Johnson in the remake—who has come to Germany to study at a dance academy, but most of the similarities end there. Where Argento tended to avoid the politics of the time and focused on creating a lavish feast for the senses, Luca Guadagnino immerses us in a gritty Berlin of darker muted color tones. The city is grappling with the revolutionary spirit of its young people; hijackings and bombings are semi-regular occurrences. Both films show Susie coming to the realization that the school is run by a coven of witches with supernatural abilities. But it’s the recent version that most fails to deliver the feminine, feminist vision it so clearly thinks it does. As The Love Witch director Anna Biller wrote in her essay about feminism in movies: “To be feminist, a movie has to have the express purpose of educating its audience about social inequality between men and women (and, I would argue, not take pleasure in the voyeuristic degradation or destruction of women).” Suspiria doesn’t much bother with the first, and absolutely takes pleasure in the second.
Movies about witches often act as litmus tests of how comfortable we are with female power and how women choose to wield it. Argento’s leaned into fear, choosing to position the older women without male companions as the ultimate threat to the young, innocent heroine who shows a shy interest in another young man at the school. Guadagnino’s film could have been an indication of how far we’ve come in considering such matters over the last four decades. Instead, it takes what’s obviously meant as a subversion and likewise leans into the very themes it seeks to transcend. Many filmmakers still haven’t seemed to learn that it takes far more than a cast which consists primarily of women to make a story feminine, and that a woman becoming more sexual doesn’t necessarily make her a threat.
Like most other stories about women told by men, the 2018 Suspiria is obsessed with purity, even if the innocence depicted is of a much different kind. In the original, Harper’s Susie was a graceful, elegant nymph who had viewers asking why she was lugging around all that luggage in heels. But such elegance is now widely associated with seduction, rather than naivete. By contrast, Johnson’s Susie arrives wearing sensible footwear, dressed in dowdy clothing that indicates her conservative religious upbringing as a Mennonite in Ohio. Right away, one of the teachers tells her she shouldn’t be at the school. That’s only before Susie auditions, and then we realize this movie will truly be as breathtaking as the first. Whereas Argento awed us with through set design, Guadagnino uses exquisite choreography. Johnson’s body becomes less of an instrument than a revolution in itself, breaking free from repression to find freedom.
But Susie and the other women under the guidance of the school’s instructors come to learn such freedom comes at a cost, especially when they get too close to the dark truth the teachers are hiding. Susie soon becomes aware of that darkness, and as she grows more confident, she also becomes more sexual. Her clothing becomes less midwestern and more European, more stylish and often showing more skin. There are no love interests, seeing as how that would sully the movie’s aforementioned notions of purity, and its misguided idea of empowerment. What Susie does find is a kind of mother figure in Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc, and her interactions with her are loaded with both queer and maternal signifiers.
Mothers are of special importance in this version of Suspiria, which is also a meta-tribute to Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, with its far darker take on female love. Here mothers are also twisted women who likewise use the power they wield over their children in horrific ways. Susie’s mother physically, emotionally, and mentally abused her daughter and believed her very existence constituted a sin for reasons that are never specified. The instructors are likewise cruel to the young women under their charge when they step out of the places designated for them, or anyone else who they see as a potential threat. One student’s angry outburst inspires brutal torture, her body twisted and bent in one deserted dance studio as a response to Susie’s awe-inspiring dance (with some magical aid thanks to Madame Blanc) in another. It’s one of the movie’s most difficult scenes to watch, made even more unpleasant as we realize Susie’s growing abilities come at another young woman’s expense. Afterwards, Susie breathlessly says, “It felt like what it must feel like to fuck.”
Then there’s Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), another student whose initiation into the truth of the school has left her a raving mess. Women who run to male authorities ranting about conspiracies tend to be dismissed, but Dr. Josef Klemperer (also played by Swinton), the psychiatrist Patricia is assigned to, is willing to follow up. Of course he doesn’t believe in her tales of witches and magic, but he is open to the idea that her stories are a coping mechanism for her suffering. It is he who encourages others, both students and police, to investigate whether there really are terrible things happening at the school, which is rather remarkable in itself. In Rosemary’s Baby, another movie about a young woman coping with evil forces around her, the title character lays out her case simply, in a mostly calm and collected manner. Patricia does not. She tells her doctor, “I let her in. I thought I wanted it.” And what do the women at the school want? According to Patricia, they’ll “hollow her out and eat my cunt on a plate.”
Klemperer is invested in trying to help the many women who come to him because he, like the rest of the older generation, suffers from a kind of survivor’s guilt from the trauma they suffered during World War II. In his case, he is haunted by the wife he lost and wonders if he somehow contributed to her death. As for the academy’s instructors, they created the dance Volk, with its performance serving as the movie’s darkly beating heart. Its themes of power and rebirth coincide not only with the politics of the time, but the struggle for dominance in the school itself, which sees its rulers divided over which future they should embrace.
Klemperer plays a pivotal role in the film’s bloody climax, which is basically an elderly Catholic man’s fever dream of of female power gone awry, and the wide gulf between the movie’s intentions and the messages it actually sends is especially stark. Susie comes to power as a maternal force in her own right, and it is disturbing, though not because of the graphic, violent manner in which she does it, although it certainly plays a part. Her mother’s belief in her evil nature is essentially proven correct. Susie may smash the old matriarchy, but not the patriarchy. After she does, she continues to force the young women, who are unwilling pawns, to keep dancing, describing their performance as beautiful. Beautiful it may be, but the fact remains that they are still being manipulated. Afterwards, they retain no memory of it, indicating that their manipulation will most likely continue.
Klemperer is somehow needed as a witness to all this, and the women who forcibly drag him into it are also supposedly holding him accountable for dismissing the young women who come to him as delusional, which is especially rich considering they’re also the ones doling out the punishment to many of them. But Klemperer also not only gets both compassion and closure, but an apology. Susie tells him how his wife died, and that in her last moments she thought only of him. His memory is then wiped, and he is allowed to go on with a clean slate. The fact that he is played by Tilda Swinton, an actress whose persona embraces androgyny, is supposed to be a subversion of the fact that the male gaze is so often still seen as a requirement even in stories about women. However, the gender fluidity of Swinton’s fantastic performance is less about allowing masculine and feminine perspectives to coexist and empathize with each other than ensuring that the male filmmakers have a kind of surrogate. Klemperer is not held accountable, he is reassured that what was done to him was a cruel and unjust mistake. He then gets a fresh start, free from the traumas in his life. In short, he is one of the “good ones.” Susie doesn’t similarly heal the school’s female victims, who have become twisted, deformed shells of themselves. They are fallen, tainted women, and the most they can hope for is to find peace through death, which Susie gently bestows like a goddess granting the kindest of favors.
In terms of how it treats female power, 2018’s Suspiria has more in common with 1971’s The Beguiled, whose director Don Siegel said was about “the basic desire of women to castrate men.” In this vision, when women are united, it is always to achieve an evil outcome. Similarly, the “bad” women psychologically and sexually demean the men they encounter, whether it’s Klemperer or the police looking for answers. When Sofia Coppola remade The Beguiled in 2017 (with a refreshingly different take), she stated, “This story had to be directed by a woman. The essence of it is feminine, it’s seen from a female point of view.”
The essence of Suspiria is feminine as well, and it likewise cries out for a female director. The material is rich with themes not only begging to be explored further, but through feminine eyes-especially in a film that revolves around the complicated dynamics between mothers and daughters. When Susie’s mother (who is not even named in the IMDB credits) states outright that she believes Susie’s very existence to be a sin, it’s a truly tragic situation, with rich material to be mined. Suspiria could have ventured behind closed doors to explore the kind of trauma that stretches back generations, with vicious cycles of assault, forced childbirth, and the self-hatred so many women pass on to their children. But the movie would rather show a woman so cartoonishly repressed she would burn her child with an iron for pleasuring herself, and even Guadagnino’s considerable artistic prowess can’t compensate for such a lack of not only insight, but compassion. Men are not incapable of understanding a female-centric perspective. Take Practical Magic, another movie about witches with a mostly female cast which is directed by a man, and is as feminine as it is feminist. Other men have created great heroines such as Buffy Summers, Ellen Ripley, Veronica Mars, Imperator Furiosa, Dana Scully, Princess Leia, Daenerys Targaryen, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But Guadagnino is so intent on fulfilling his vision he doesn’t seem to have room for any perspective besides his own, leaving the women in his narrative underserved in spite of his incredibly skilled efforts.