Amongst the 260 odd pages of Kathy Acker’s 1993 experimental novel My Mother: Demonology, somewhere near the front of that iconic postmodern feminist writer’s book is featured a chapter called “Clit City”. Framed from the outset as her reimagining of the 1977 Eurohorror classic Suspiria, that film’s director is lovingly acknowledged as she states on its first page that the chapter is “dedicated to Dario Argento, of course”. Structurally, many of the key elements of Argento’s films are there, indicated by subheadings such as “I go back to school”, “The eradication of maggots”, “One murder leads to another”, and “A bat and I become friends”. But in her own unique style, Acker reimagines Suspiria as something uniquely her own; visceral, queer and confronting in a way that was so representational of Acker’s broader artistic practice.
In this idiom, Luca Guadagnino’s so-called 2018 ‘remake’ of Argento’s beloved horror film is less a straightforward retelling than it is a powerful and playful reconceptualization along the lines – although strikingly different to – Acker’s “Clit City”. Like Acker’s work, Guadagnino and writer Dave Kajganich rely on the basic plot elements on Argento’s original. The 2018 Suspiria – like its predecessor – follows an American dancer called Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson) who travels to Germany to further develop her studies in dance. Her arrival coincides with the mysterious disappearance of Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who we see anxious and paranoid in the film’s opening scenes, fearing for her life and seeking help. Arriving at the prestigious dance studio of Helena Markos led by Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton), Suzy’s dedication to and obsession with dance is increasingly and inextricably linked to her involvement in the mysteries that lie at the heart of the training institution as her friend Sara (Mia Goth) investigates Pat’s disappearance and the truth is revealed to the girls: that Madam Blanc’s dance studio is the front for a coven of witches.
But in general terms, this is where the similarities end. As someone who in 2015 published the first (and what currently remains the only) full-length book in English about Argento’s Suspiria, it is a curious feeling for me to state what I see as an inescapable fact when approaching Guadagnino’s Suspiria: questions of fidelity and adaptation are, to be blunt, the least interesting thing about it. Like Acker’s “Clit City”, Guadagnino’s Suspira begins with the essence of Argento’s film as its starting point, but then does something wholly unique with it. A trusted colleague1 who had already seen the film before I did recently at its North American premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest in late September noted that Guadagnino’s Suspiria is as much indebted to Rainer Werner Fassbinder as it is Dario Argento. In terms of its intense and explicit focus on the public unrest surrounding domestic terrorism and the Baader-Meinhof Group,2 the 2018 Suspiria is as much a horror film reimagining of Fassbinder’s Die Dritte Generation (The Third Generation, 1979) as it is a remake of Argento’s original movie.
But of course, in terms of the core mythology that drives Guadagnino’s Suspiria, the imprint of Argento’s film is impossible to deny. Along with his (often overlooked) collaborator Daria Nicolodi, at the heart of both versions of Suspiria lie the three mothers; Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), Mater Lachrymarum (The Mother of Tears), and Mater Tenebrarum (The Mother of Darkness). Each mother would form the basis of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, with Suspiria followed by Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007). The ‘three mothers’ motif was the brainchild of Nicolodi, who read Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 work Suspiria De Profundis (Sighs from the Depths) and discovered in his prose-poetry essay “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” the basis for what she felt would be the perfect foundations for a horror movie. Guadagnino too bases his film on the first of De Quincey’s three mothers, but perhaps even more than Argento – with his focus on the intense social and political turbulence in 1977 Berlin where his film is set – underscore’s Rei Terada’s suggestion that De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis is at its heart a work about trauma: it “accounts for what happens when the mind does understand what no one should be able to understand”.3
This notion of conceiving the inconceivable lies fundamentally at the heart of both Argento’s 1977 Suspiria and Guadagnino’s 2018 film of the same name, and both films – in very different ways – explore new ways of understanding that rely heavily on transcending the intellect and surrendering to the somatic: in Argento’s film, this stems from the unambiguous sensory assault of sound and vision that render it one of the great achievements of 20th horror cinema, and in Guadagnino’s version, this is achieved through tightly weaving the act of dance itself with what writer Kajganich described in a Q+A session following its North American premiere as “spell-casting”. We can use this as a springboard to discuss the three ‘meta’ mothers whose significance to the 2018 Suspiria in many ways feel as central as Maters Suspiriorum, Lachrymarum and Tenebrarum themselves: Kathy Acker, Pina Bausch, and Tilda Swinton.
The Mother of Fury: Kathy Acker
Whether Kathy Acker is a direct reference or not on the 2018 version of Suspiria, her particular brand of punk feminism is an inescapable point of reference to Guadagnino’s film: this film in many ways feels as much a reimagining of “Clit City” as it is Argento’s film directly. Hearing Kajganich speak on the process of writing the script, there is little doubt that his research into the disparate threads that construct the film – from German domestic politics to contemporary dance – verges on the exhaustive. Yet in the post-screening Q+A after the North American premiere and the interviews that followed at the time of writing this article at least, Kajganich has not mentioned Kathy Acker so it is frankly difficult to know concretely if she pinged his radar during this research process or not. Regardless, one particular phrase by Chloë Grace Moretz’s Patricia in the film’s opening few moments suggest that if this is not the case, it is quite the coincidence: speaking of her fears of the Tanzgruppe’s coven, she says “If I go back, they’re going to serve my cunt on a plate”.
Amplifying the queer elements that were certainly present in the original Argento film, the particular language here strongly evokes – whether consciously or not – Acker’s “Clit City”. Across her writing, Acker embraced the c-bomb in a spirit of creative reclamation like few others before or since. My Mother: Demonology typifies the literary readymade mode in which the decidedly postmodern Acker flourished with her cut-and-paste approach to form and intertextual referencing: throughout the book, Argento sits comfortably alongside references to everyone from Georges Bataille to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Arthur Rimbaud to Radley Metzger, Emily Brontë to Luis Buñuel.
If the very chapter title “Clit City” wasn’t enough of an indication, references to female biology dominate Acker’s reimagining of Suspiria: in Argento’s version Pat doesn’t whisper the word “irises” to Suzy when their paths briefly cross as the former flees the Freiburg Tanzakademie while the latter arrives, but instead says “secret (secrete) pussy”.4 While Argento’s Pat soon hangs from a rope dangling through an ornate, garishly coloured stained-glass window, in Acker’s version, she is hung by her tampon string. Even more provocatively, perhaps, is Acker’s version of the scene in Argento’s film where maggots fall from the ceiling, frightening the girls out of their dormitory rooms and into makeshift sleeping quarters where they are unknowingly visited by the sleeping Mother of Sighs, Helena Markos herself: instead of the ceiling, Acker reveals the that the maggots are falling from everywhere, not just the ceiling but most memorably, from the progatonist’s (you guessed it) “cunt”.
Like Kajganich’s screenplay for Guadagnino’s Suspiria, for Acker, there is in her reimagining of Suspiria an essential and inescapable body politic at stake; as American poet Kevin Killian has noted, in “Clit City” Acker “suggested that Argento’s films perform allegorical functions for the way that AIDS works in the body and in the social system”.5 Via Acker, in his own writing Killian discovered that the surrealism at the heart of Argento’s Suspiria provide him with a conceptual starting place to think through the socio-political impact of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in his Argento Series of 2001. Like Acker’s “Clit City”, Guadagnino’s Suspiria riffs on the mythology of Argento’s original to speak to contemporary gender politics; it is a film about the institutionalised factionalisation of women’s power and how it works against feminist solidarity, the politics of motherhood and the depravity of its corruption, and the extremes to which one must go to transcend the inherited toxicity of generational identity politics to achieve a totally new way of both thinking of and executing women’s power. In Guadagnino’s Suspiria, this shift occurs through the body itself; largely, through dance.
The Mother of Movement: Pina Bausch
One of the great ‘jokes’ of Argento’s Suspiria is that is a film set in a ballet school that features almost no dancing at all: the one scene where we see Jessica Harper’s Suzy6 about to perform, she passes out, bewitched, with a bloody nose. Instead, Argento presents a literal danse macabre as his signature murder vignettes – drenched as they are with Goblin’s iconic soundtrack and the masterful, intoxicating cinematography of Luciano Tovoli – become gruesome ballets in and of themselves, the inadvertent spasms and death throes of each unfortunate victim rendered almost choreographic in its detail, precision, rhythm and intensity.
Enter Pina Bausch, a clear and inescapable influence on Guadagnino’s Suspiria that was abundantly clear even before Kajganich had mentioned her as one of the key dance figures that he researched when writing the screenplay. One does not need a deep understanding of Bausch and her work to spot these immediate parallels: as Madam Blanc, Swinton’s severe centre-parted hair and tightly-pulled back pony tail mirrors Bausch’s famous look, the two women sharing a penchant for simply-cut, sometimes even shapeless, flowing gowns and tunics. Guadagnino’s Suspira pivots around the performance of one of Blanc’s most famous works, Volk. Translating to “people”, the title of the dance alone recalls what is arguably Bausch’s most famous quote: “I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them.”7
Even for a dance novice such as myself, the relevance of this iconic statement to Guadagnio’s Suspiria – the intersection of self and the intoxication of feeling with the movement of the body – seems to recur like a drumbeat throughout the way people have described seeing Bausch’s work. The very language that has been used to describe these performances have almost direct parallels to what Kajganich so evocatively described as the “spell-casting” nature of dance in his reimagining of Suspiria: for Sanjoy Roy, “Bausch could…take you to a higher place that you didn’t even know existed… in her grand imaginings of desire, habit, instinct and power, we recognised something of ourselves – and we were both devastated and elated by what we saw.” 8
And then there’s the rope costumes the dancers wear in the dance performance sequence that lies at the heart of Guadagnino’s Suspiria. First performed in 1986, her work Viktor featured rope as a central prop, as did Bausch’s last piece before her death in 2009, “…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…” (Like Moss on the Stone). These rope costumes that circulated heavily in early promotional material for the film feel like an indirect reference to Bausch, and the near-fetishistic idea of being tethered – and, necessarily, of being untethered – speak to both the themes of the film itself and to the role rope has played as both a symbolic and artistic device across some of Bausch’s most impressive work. Viktor in particular typified Bausch’s fascination with a kind of emotional primitivism that features heavily in the many training sequences. Most significantly are those that that centre heavily on a quasi-philosophical discourse between Swinton’s Blanc and Johnson’s Suzy, where questions of jumping without boundaries and staying firmly tethered to the ground in a choreographic sense take on greater meaning in the context of the supernatural aspects of the film regarding which celestial plane the young woman will ultimately choose to perform her best work, both literally as a dancer and – without revealing the film’s ending – as a young woman transformed by her confrontation with with powerful witches whose corrupt influence has spanned generations.
The Mother of the Ambiguity: Tilda Swinton
Beginning her career in a number of films by Derek Jarman in the 1980s and launched into the international limelight in the title role of Sally Potter’s 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woof’s 1928 novel Orlando, in 2018 Tilda Swinton’s star image is now synonymous with a particular brand of visually accentuated androgyny that stands in active opposition to the orthodox ‘look’ of mainstream feminine celebrity. Having collaborated with Guadagnino on three films previously – The Protagonists (1999), I Am Love (2009), and A Bigger Splash (2015) – Swinton has noted that a reimagining of Suspiria was a subject of conversation from their earliest meeting.9 Noting how women-centred the new Suspiria is (which, to be fair, the original was also), Zack Sharf at IndieWire noted that although the project had been a long time in the making, that this imagining of Suspiria would be released “a year after the #MeToo anti-harassment movement launched into the zeitgeist” ”10 was of no small note. But for Swinton, the film’s reach spans far beyond than the time of its release: “There are 38 women in the film and three men – it’s a good balance in terms of representation and in terms of its thematics, it has a resonance way beyond this present moment.”11
Much has been made of the likelihood – although not yet a definite fact – that as well as playing the role of Madam Blanc, Swinton dragged up to play Pat Hingle’s psychologist Jozef Klemperer, listed in the film’s credits and promotional material as Lutz Ebersdorf. 12 While at the time of writing this is still a subject of some debate, if indeed Klemperer is played by Swinton, it resolves what at first might be one of the film’s weakest elements – that a film ostensibly about women and power is bookended by a man’s story, with the film beginning with Klemperer and Pat’s intense encounter, and finishing with a resolution of sorts to Klemperer’s own personal storyline. Based simply on a facial similarity and echoing Orlando in particular with Swinton’s binary-defying refusal to solely play roles aligned with orthodox gender categories, that Swinton could in fact be ‘Lutz Ebersdorf’ would not be wholly surprising, and would adhere neatly with Kajganich’s, Guadagnino’s and Swinton herself’s emphasis that this reimagining of Suspiria (like Argento’s original) is very much ultimately the story of women, even when focusing on a male character.
And yet, Suspiria is ultimately neither about Blanc nor Klemperer, but – like the 1977 version itself – focused explicitly on the next generation and the way forward. Both films mark the end of archaic dynasties as they propose new ways of thinking about women and power in their contemporary moments. Suspiria 1977 and Suspiria 2018 are different beasts for different times, but their literal exposed hearts issue forth an unrelenting and passionate drumbeat, a manifesto driven by rhythm and sensation that demands the death of the old and the rise of the new.
- Sincere and deep, deep thanks to James Shapirio from the Alamo Drafthouse and part of the programming team at Fantastic Fest for convincing me to see this film despite my initial hesitations. ↩
- This element is one of the most intriguing aspects of Guadagnino’s film which – although not a focus of this particular essay – will doubtlessly spawn some of the more important and fascinating writing around the recent version of Suspiria upon its wider release. ↩
- Rei Terada, “Living a Ruined Life: De Quincey Beyond the Worst”, European Romantic Review, 20. 2 (April 2009). p. 177. ↩
- Kathy Acker, My Mother: Demonology. New York: Grove Press, 1993. ↩
- Tony Leuzzi, “An Interview with Kevin Killian”, EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts, February 2009 https://chax.org/eoagh/issuefive/killian.html ↩
- Harper returns for a small but crucial cameo in Guadagnino’s Suspiria as another character in one of the film’s most beautiful and sad subplots that ultimately holds profound significance to the film’s final moments. ↩
- Pina Bausch: Life and Works”, Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts, https://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bausch/life.html ↩
- Sanjoy Roy, “Pina Bausch: Clip-By-Clip Dance Guide”, The Guardian, 1 July 2009 ↩
- Jeremy Kay, “Luca Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton on the long journey to bring ‘Suspiria’ back to life”, Screen Daily, 28 August 2018 https://www.screendaily.com/features/luca-guadagnino-and-tilda-swinton-on-the-long-journey-to-bring-suspiria-back-to-life/5131955.article ↩
- Zack Sharf, “Suspiria: Why Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino Still Love Working Together After 19 Years”, IndieWire, 28 August 2018 https://www.indiewire.com/2018/08/tilda-swinton-luca-guadagnino-suspiria-relationship-interview-1201998284/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- As of September 2018, Wikipedia summarised this enigma as follows: “In March 2017, photographs of a seemingly old man spotted on the film’s set were published online, identifying the man as Swinton in heavy makeup. In February 2018, Guadagnino said that the man was not Swinton but in fact a German actor named Lutz Ebersdorf in his screen debut, who plays a psychoanalyst named Jozef Klemperer in the film and is a psychoanalyst himself. IndieWire questioned the veracity of Guadagnino’s statement because of Ebersdorf’s suspicious IMDb profile and his otherwise lack of online presence. The film’s casting director and executive producer Stella Savino responded to IndieWire, saying “the character of Dr. Klemperer has been played by Professor Lutz Ebersdorf, a psychoanalyst and not at all a professional actor”, because Guadagnino wanted a real psychoanalyst for the role. During a press conference following the film’s September 1, 2018 premiere at Venice, Swinton read a letter purportedly written from Ebersdorf in lieu of his absence, which read: “I am a private individual who prefers to remain private … Though I strongly suspect Suspiria will be the only film I ever appear in, I like the work, and I do not mind getting up very early. Joanna Robinson, writing for Vanity Fair, reported that when the film screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, on September 23, 2018, the audience was certain that the role of Klemperer was played by Swinton. Robinson speculated that the filmmakers wrote the role and cast Swinton in order for the film to have both an outsider’s perspective and a narrative of female power. By September 2018, IMDb had deleted Ebersdorf’s profile and credited Swinton as playing Klemperer under the alias ‘Lutz Ebersdorf’.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspiria_(2018_film)#Role_of_Jozef_Klemperer. ↩