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In "Suspiria," The Witches Are Real

Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 classic has a lot on its mind, but the director wants you to figure that out for yourself.

Posted on October 30, 2018, at 2:32 p.m. ET

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria.
Amazon Studios

Dakota Johnson in Suspiria.

Witches are having a moment. Suspiria, a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic about a coven at a dance academy, arrived in select theaters Oct. 26, the same day Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina dropped, and shortly after the debut of the CW’s Charmed reboot. It goes into wide release Nov. 2. And then there’s the real-world resurgence of the term “witch hunt,” used defensively by men who would rather the accusations of sexual misconduct against them be dismissed as pure fantasy.

The invocation of “witch hunt” is a bit muddled. On the one hand, men caught up in the reckoning seem to be using it to align themselves with the false accusations of witchcraft that led innocent women to be hanged. On the other, it’s a way to link their female accusers with witches: After all, condemning women as witches has been a way to silence them since — well, always.

But what if being a witch isn’t such a bad thing? For every cry of “witch hunt,” there are women proudly proclaiming, “Yes, we are witches. And we will fuck you up.”

This isn’t a new concept. As Suspiria director Luca Guadagnino noted, the feminist reclamation of witches dates back to the ‘70s, when — not coincidentally — he decided to set his film.

“‘Witch’ has been an appellative given to women by a patriarchal society throughout centuries of stigma, condemnation, persecution,” he told BuzzFeed News. “And I think that the great experience of the feminism of the ’70s was to say, ‘You know what? Yeah, I’m a witch. And I reclaim it.’”

The dancers of Markos Dance Academy.
Alessio Bolzoni / Amazon Studios

The dancers of Markos Dance Academy.

The witches in Suspiria are not Sabrina’s plucky title character or the trio at the heart of Charmed, unequivocal forces of good. While their motivations are initially mysterious, it’s evident early on that the matrons at Berlin’s Markos Dance Academy — including the fiercely intimidating Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) — harbor less-than-pure intentions for new arrival Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson).

Susie arrives shortly after the disappearance of Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who rails about the witches at the academy in the opening scene. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Klemperer — played by Swinton in male drag under the name Lutz Ebersdorf — dismisses her as delusional, but Patricia is clearly onto something. As Susie very quickly moves up the ranks as a dancer, she is plagued by strange nightmares — and more girls are disappearing. In one particularly gruesome scene, Susie’s dancing inadvertently causes another dancer’s body to contort and break until she’s left dead and mangled.

As Patricia outlines it for Dr. Klemperer, there are three ancient and powerful witches: Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears). The matrons at Markos Dance Academy work in service of Mater Suspiriorum — but just because these witches do some very bad things doesn’t mean they’re not sometimes in the right. At one point, a matron admonishes Dr. Klemperer for his refusal to listen to women. “When women tell you the truth, you don’t pity them!” she screams. “You tell them they have delusions!” In a cultural moment when “believe women” has become a rallying cry, these words cut deep.

Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc.
Willy Vanderperre / Amazon Studios

Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc.

“The person who says that is a witch,” Guadagnino noted, “and I agree with her.”

Getting Guadagnino to talk about the deeper themes of his film can be a challenge. Suspiria is a stunning but occasionally confounding movie. Like so much of the director’s work, which also includes Call Me by Your Name and A Bigger Splash, it’s gorgeous to look at and thoroughly compelling, a sharp and unnerving exploration of women’s power and control. At the same time, trying to unravel the specifics of the plot — not to mention what it all means — feels, at times, like an exercise in futility. And for his part, Guadagnino is not particularly eager to help.

When asked about one possible, less literal reading of Suspiria, the director balked. “It’s a little bit cringey to me,” he said. “It’s something that makes me, like—” He groaned to underscore his displeasure. “I think the movie should speak for itself. And every person who sees the film will see the film, and they will understand the way in which the film works for them.”

That’s a diplomatic answer, if not a satisfying one to those who leave Suspiria with endless questions. But the film’s ambiguity and open-ended nature are not flaws so much as features, and it’s unlikely that any attempt by Guadagnino to articulate his own interpretation of the movie would make Suspiria any easier to digest. For those who gravitate toward straightforward horror, the film may prove unbearably frustrating. But for those who want a movie they can spend hours unpacking, Suspiria is a revelation.

It’s also important to note that as vague as the film can feel at times, it’s not unsubtle about its larger aims. The thematic throughlines — the fight for a woman’s bodily autonomy, the power struggle between mothers and daughters, the ever-evasive concept of control — repeatedly rise to the surface. They are evident in moments like the “believe women” scene, or, earlier in the film, when one character notes, “The Reich wanted women to shut off their minds and keep their uteruses open.”

Luca Guadagnino on the set of Suspiria.
Sandro Kopp / Amazon Studios

Luca Guadagnino on the set of Suspiria.

Guadagnino was insistent that his Suspiria take place in 1977 Berlin, the year the original came out, and it’s specific to that time and place. But it also feels perfectly suited to 2018, when, for example, women’s reproductive independence remains hotly contested. “It's an ongoing thing that should be fought hard,” Guadagnino said. It’s telling that while “witch hunt” feels like one of 2018’s most significant phrases, the same could be said about so many years before this one.

Films are a product of their time, Guadagnino noted, “but at the same time, they have to transcend it.” Viewed in our current cultural context, “the movie reflects very much our sense of what it says about control, power.”

By that logic, our perception of this Suspiria will likely change over time — but then, so has our perception of the original, which was once dismissed by many as empty gore and is now widely regarded as a horror classic. In fact, the love for Argento’s Suspiria makes Guadagnino’s film (which he calls an homage, not a remake) inherently risky. In reconceiving and retelling the story of a young woman at a ballet academy run by witches, the director is — at least the way some Argento fans see it — messing with perfection, and stepping on a film that is dear to its devotees.

“I'm very wary of that,” he said. “I understand that feeling [that it replaces the original]. And I agree. I don't want that. I want a new thing.”

Still, that apprehension won’t stop the director from continuing to make the films he wants to make, whether that’s a follow-up to Call Me by Your Name, or a complex, unnerving Suspiria that bears only a passing resemblance to the source material. “I do what I like to do,” Guadagnino added, “and I am interested in other people’s opinion, very much so, but I don’t approach my life and work through the prism of fear.”

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