It’s hard to believe there was a time where I was ambivalent towards a Suspiria remake. It’s hard to believe there was ever a time Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Dario Argentos’ original source material, had never existed at all. Anybody who knows me even in passing knows that Suspiria means a great deal to me. It’s the most emphatic horror film to be released in a considerably long time, one that understands the heft of having power, the pain of not having it, and the release that comes with gaining it. Power is the bread and butter of Suspiria‘s overall effect, and its attainability and fear is the main source of the horror that permeates the film. And no other film character to me in the last twenty-or-so years embodies these concepts better than Susie Bannion.
The difference between the Susie Bannion of 2018’s iteration and the Suzy Bannion of the 1977 Argento outing is so seismic, you could be forgiven if you thought at first that Dakota Johnson was named Susie as some sort of nickname; and that surely the real Susie will appear shortly. Those first minutes of Dakota Johnson wandering aimlessly amidst the divided Germany of the 1970s put any idea like that to rest, as her innocence and inexperience to her surroundings quickly puts her on guard, much like Suzy of 1977. This is first seen in Susie coming across some Berlin punks that give trouble to the local police at the airport. Ohio is a long ways away.
Susie clears her throat, not wanting to betray any naivete that is so obviously announcing itself to the wardens of the Helena Markos Dance Academy. “Where are you from?” asks one of the patrons, somewhat authoritatively. “Ohio,” she replies, her smile masking the discomfort exuding in the raspiness of her voice. Susie is wearing overalls, her hair in a bun, carrying herself in a mannered disposition. Berlin hasn’t suffocated any semblance of her Mennonite past yet, as the patron Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler) can see. But then we see her in a blank, completely grey set of clothes, alone. Her movements are becoming rapid as she distresses for her audition. There’s something peculiar about the way she releases the tension in her body – she has a specific focus in calming down her chest. Sighs echo throughout the building, gaining traction, the messy letters of the Markos Dance Academy schedule splashed out behind her. The frame dissolves from this lonely woman into a class of eager dancers and their instructor: Madame Blanc.
This is the first time, but not the last, that the frames of the film give way to Susie’s true nature. Susie is alone, focusing on her craft – and then the film melts away to the larger body of the academy: the daughters. The frame they occupy is the close-up of Susie we were just looking at. The daughters are already “occupying” a mothers head. Her line of thinking is quickly broken by her audition beginning. No music. It breaks the concentration. And then, like a bullet firing from a gun, Susie Bannion’s arm rips forward like it’s being pulled from an otherworldly entity. A sigh bursts out of her like dragon fire. Her movements from this point forward could hardly be considered dance; her body contorts in ways that betray the physics of the human body. In what I consider to be the scariest moment in the film, Susie quickly moves to the floor, and scurries away in total darkness away from the patrons like a spider running from an angry foots heel. It defies logic and reason. As she spins rapidly and notices Madame Blanc, both know there is more to this Mennonite woman from Ohio that she is letting on.
Not since the work of Chantal Akerman has a film been this detailed with the space a woman occupies and how it relates to her power and/or isolation. This concept isn’t entirely tied to Susie either. The witches gathering as they vote for either Blanc or Markos has the camera moving around the room as a spirit trapped in the confines of its own making. The drums of “Has Ended” plays like a dirge. The final shot of this long take is settled on the hands intertwined with eyes as Blanc and Tanner agree that bringing Susie along will help ease things after the disappearance of Patricia Hingle. The mere mention of Susie when she isn’t onscreen reveals an empathetic presence that seems devoted to her – and only her. The Academy has a heart, and it beats for its mother.
In the original source material, Suzy was a vessel into a kaleidoscopic nightmare that slowly and surely inched its way toward her, not in a sense of curiosity but in hunger. We the viewer felt safe with her; we identified with her, we know her strengths and weaknesses, we know the same amount of information that she knows. A huge level of the effect of 1977’s Suspiria was the indefinite feeling that we were lost in a rabbit hole of technicolor and madness, and we had no idea how to crawl out of it like Suzy did. Susie Bannion of 2018 guarantees no such security or companionship. Even in her most seemingly puppyish moments, she carries herself with a straight back and glacier blue eyes that can freeze anyone and anything. “It’s difficult not to be curious about you. In two days, you’ve auditioned, been accepted…and danced a lead.” says a chicken wing eating Madame Blanc to Susie, in one of their many dialogue driven moments with a palpable erotic air.
But perhaps Susie’s power has never been better demonstrated in the film more than the shot above, my favorite in the entire film: a cross dissolve where Susies’ power grows stronger by attaining it from another student, complete with a Kubrick Stare sharp enough to cut through bone. The troupe occupying Susie’s head is a revelation to the attentive. It is a terrifying reminder of what this woman is holding inside herself, and there isn’t much time until she – and we – are woken up to a power beyond comprehension. Some mothers love their children above all else; she thinks about them when they’re not around, cares for them, wants whats best for them. Sometimes the safest place for a person is under their mothers wings.
And what better way to understand the head of an ambitious artist striving for greatness than getting a look at their dreams, which Susie has, or rather is given over the course of the film. A shattered mirror. Maggots. Curiosity. Autonomy. An iron. Mother. Stolen choices. Violence. Mother. Mother. Mother.
“I know who I am.”
The final realization is upon us.
This is where Suspiria reveals its hand. Its poker face is slipping, and we’re hurdling towards obliteration. Everything after Susie’s final dream plays out like a dream that we ourselves are having, but with more violent erratic dancing in red lace. The Volk dance would be the best horror sequence in the last decade or two – if not for the fact the scene that succeeds it is the best in the last decade or two. But Volk is the culmination of everything we’ve been lead to believe about witches, Susie, the Academy. All of it. The air feels like its physically cracking with the movement of these women. Breaths of air escape their lungs as if it threatens to eat them from the inside out. And Susie is leading it as if she was born to. But mistakes are made, and friends are in danger. Now able to communicate through minds: “I’m sorry I went off book“. A promise is made to her – no more dreams tonight.
“Suspiriorum” is the title of the final chapter of the film, intertwined with dissolves of Susie’s dancing enveloping everything. Thom Yorke’s celestial singing of Open Again in this scene acts as a final catalyst that we are here, at the end. The entirety of the song plays as Susie gets ready for something, nothing that looks like a dance, but a dinner. A dinner where no eating is partaken with her; she would much rather hold a gaze with Madame Blanc, a conversation in their heads is clearly taking place, if only the audience got to listen. Thom Yorke’s soundtrack was my favorite of 2018, but the vocally led songs are another key to the treasure chest that is Susie’s power.
We breathe again
Upon another shore
We live again
Just sing again
Just say the magic words
Vulnerability, relief, and the promise of something wonderful and new, a song that plays as the last shackle of our heroine has unchained itself.
Breathe in, and in.
We’re here. The scene. The Unmade sequence, the most cathartic release of repressed being in any film I have ever seen – Susie’s childhood, her dreams, her passion for dance, her quest to take what she realizes has always been hers all culminate in an orchestra of pure cinema. All the patrons are gathered in the cellar for the invocation of the false ruler Helena Markos into a new, young, fresh body. “I came here for this. You’ve all waited long enough.”
Throughout the years of my own childhood, I would like to look up “greatest movie plot twists” as a way to pass the time, but also take a look at how narrative twists and (satisfying) subversion can transform a story from one thing to another. I had already known the kind of film twists I would be reading. It was always Se7en, Memento, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, etc. But I loved reading about them anyway. Until Suspiria, I don’t think I had ever experience a true twist in real time in a theater that grabbed me by the throat, dizzying me, and making me drive home in a half awake daze. Most of the greatest plot twists in cinema begin or end with a few words. Bathed in red, these three most of all;
“I am she.”
Hearing these words in a theater, spoken by a woman who has had to fight to figure out who she is for so long, to recognize her power and her own love for her “daughters”, was nothing short of unraveling for me. To see her place her hands on her chest and pull it away. To see her sigh erratically, breathing in and out, knowing her whole life led her to this moment in Germany in 1977 where the rest of her life will begin.
To see her let go.
It was something I had frankly never seen before, not done in this manner, not this emphatically. I can recall how many times I’ve seen it, but not how many times I’ve thought about it. It’s a moment as formative as any I can recall in my 23 years of being alive and knowing what films are, before my family got me a 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, before I saw my first R-rated film in a theater, before I started my journey to be a filmmaker at all. Unmade is perhaps the greatest original song of the past I-don’t-know-how-many-years, but it all goes back to how Thom Yorke is able to effortlessly meld the bittersweet with the terrifying, the merciless with the merciful in his lyrics during this sequence. It is the collision of Mother Suspiriorum and Susie Bannion as two separate entities, before finally merging as the all powerful being she is, as she’s always been. A mother.
I swear that there’s nothing up my sleeves
And then back again
I swear there’s nothing