There are some directors I cant really forgive, and Argento is high on that list, just below Bela Tarr. This astonishingly violent arthouse piece was produced in Italy, but has been virtually unheard-of across Europe, because of its scandalous content, which is nearly on a level with the sheer technical skill of its production. The plotline is simple: naïve American ballet student travels to study in Germany, where she discovers that her dance teachers are really witches, who periodically murder people. However, if you don’t examine pay attention you might be forgiven for thinking that the story is just a front for the imagery: the architecture of the school alone looks like gothic confectionary gone mad, aided by the outdated Technicolor process used to enhance the colours. The remarkable score, courtesy of the rock band Goblin (no, I haven’t herd of them either) gives the whole thing a remarkably fresh, timeless feel.
Pity about the content then! Although admittedly, critics have commented that without the violence this would not be the same film, I personally think that the murders in Suspiria are beyond gratuitous. The opening scene alone sees a student stabbed, disembowelled and hanged by the neck, which is surely a bit impolite:
And it only gets worse. However, the maddening fact is that you can never dismiss this film as prettified trash. The violence hides a real exploration of female power struggles. The witches are hideously evil and violent because they represent the pinnacle of female corruption. Some critics have identified what they think is a lesbian undertone in the film, and I would say they are not far off: the witches seek to corrupt the dance students, possibly by seduction. Those girls who seem to be corrupted are certainly more sexualised than the two girls Susie and Sarah who try to work out what’s going on in the school. Its interesting to examine how innocence and experience are portrayed in this film; it seems to me that the director is more interested in symbolism and iconography in his portrayal of the characters, which reinforces the impression that he is exploring the female psyche: Susie and Sarah, the good girls, are nearly identical, flat-chested, Bambi-eyed innocents. Their very similarity suggests that here is an archetype of female virtue, rather than a rounded character. The witches and the corrupted girls are much less identical, but care is taken to indicate corruption; they are sexualised, so much that you can hardly blame those critics who assume this is a lesbian film; the scene in which a student seductively tells her teacher “I have something to tell you…” might as well have a neon signpost over it saying DODGY UNDERTONES. But I don’t think lesbianism is the issue. The male presence in this film is almost nonexistent, and the director is trying to indicate that corruption is a threat to girls in this school. More pertinently, the destruction of innocence, by violence or seduction, is the aim of the witches. Thus the school becomes the setting for power struggles between good and evil in the female psyche.
As the film nears its end, the symbolism becomes more obvious; Sarah is murdered, in a typically appalling way, and her body mutilated. Susie is forced to confront the coven leader, Helena Marcos, who represents absolute evil, and has been lurking at the heart of the school all along. Rather than fight Susie herself the witch calls up the desecrated body of Sarah to kill her:
Helena Marcos: you wanted to kill me! You wanted to KILL me! Ahahahahah!
Door creeks partly open
Helena Marcos: Hell is behind that door! You’ll need death now! For the living dead!
The bloody, mutilated body of Sarah lurches into the room, cackling madly, with a knife in her hand and nails through her eyes.
In this scene, a symbol of innocence has been corrupted and become the instrument of Evil. It is clear that the directors intention is to portray a psychological truth in the film, not a literal one (I grant that you will have cottoned on that cackling corpses are not a literal truth.) psychologically, corruption and the death of innocence are the same thing. The body of Sarah in this scene is no different really to the corrupted students: she is the tool of the witches, and corrupt herself. She is a warning to Susie (the only remaining symbol of innocence) of the very real danger she is in. Argentos interpretation of the female psyche is clearly that it is a battleground, in which good stands in constant danger from the plague-like influence of evil, which turns goodness into a reflection of itself. Thank you mister Argento, when you feel like making a children’s programme I will be sure to watch.