Part way through the opening credits of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’, a calm and reassuring voice intones “Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated academy of Freiburg. One day, at nine in the morning, she left Kennedy airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10.40pm local time.” It’s the first and last time in the movie that any degree of calmness or reassurance occurs. And it’s at least an hour till anything else remotely resembling exposition finds its way into the dialogue.
It’s probably just as well we’ve been told that Suzy (Jessica Harper) has landed in Germany, since there are no real cues – apart from some oompah music in a bar whose patrons guzzle from steins; and this comes much later in the film – as to the locale. In fact, the concourse we see Suzy walking through in the opening shots barely resembles an airport. A set of automatic doors slide open (Argento’s camera lingers on the mechanism as if something nasty is about the happen) and Suzy is propelled outside into a raging storm.
There are several storms in ‘Suspiria’, each one crashing away as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have just come galloping into town. These storms are a welcome aural relief from the sustained assault of Goblin’s score. The soundscape of ‘Suspiria’ makes Ministry at their loudest sound like the Penguin Café Orchestra. I can’t think of any other film whose soundtrack – not just the music, but the unearthly noises that reverberate along corridors, the disembodied voices that gibber and cackle, and the foley work that drowns out the dialogue and footsteps ring out like gunshots and water trickling down a plughole sounds like somebody’s death throes – is so explicitly keyed in to its aesthetic.
Everything about ‘Suspiria’ is purposefully and punishingly designed to disorientate, disturb and mindfuck the viewer without cessation. It’s pure cinema: immersive and visceral, it unfolds with the intensity, inescapability and illogicality of a fever dream. Plot synopsis? Oh come now, that would suggest that ‘Suspiria’ has a plot. It barely even recognises narrative. Indeed, its few concessions to narrative – a bit of exposition utterly detracted from by camerawork; a villain identified and defeated; a denouement (in the sense of everything goes, quite literally, to hell just before the film ends) – are almost a statement of anti-narrative in and of themselves.
Argento’s script, co-written with his then partner Daria Nicolodi, takes Thomas de Quincey’s essay ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (a work that makes your average William Burroughs text look like a “just say no” commercial) as its starting point, and throws in some guff about witches at a ballet school that Nicolodi claimed had happened to her grandmother as a young woman, but which Argento later blew the whistle on as bullshit. Essentially, Suzy turns up at the academy the night a fellow student flees the place and is killed at a friend’s apart; Suzy experiences weird shit, including having some kind of spell put on her; Suzy’s one friend Sara (Stefania Casini) dies after speaking too freely about the aforementioned weird shit; Suzy uncovers witchery. But even this précis dignifies ‘Suspiria’ with too much coherence. Sara’s concerns about what’s going on behind closed doors don’t take the cinematically popular form of amateur sleuthing, clues being uncovered and building up a picture; on the contrary, her ramblings are senseless and paranoid. Nor does the weird shit Suzy experiences indicate what’s going on behind the scenes. Argento and Nicolodi’s script doesn’t engage with the idea of witchcraft beyond, “hey, witches are women and they do weird shit, right?”
In many a film, these elements would be incredibly problematic. ‘Suspiria’ claims them as part of its aesthetic. And what an aesthetic! ‘Suspiria’ is an aggressive barrage of sound, imagery and nightmarishly unnatural colours. The principle of which is red. It may have been Argento’s previous film that gloried in the title ‘Profondo Ross’, but ‘Suspiria’ is his true hellish symphony in red.
Easily the most beautiful film ever to be stuffed full of horrible and troubling images – an already eviscerated body plunging through stained glass; an attic crawling with maggots; a young woman plunging helplessly into a room filled with razor wire; a reanimated corpse with nails in its eyes – ‘Suspiria’ gains another layer of unease from the prowling, gliding, queasily subjective camerawork Argento had already become famous for. Everything disorientates or defamiliarises. Even a boilerplate scene of exposition where Suzy consults Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler) for an academic perspective on witchcraft is punctuated by a vertiginous bit of architecture porn …
… and pays off with a long zoom that floats between the protagonists and comes to rest on their murky reflections:
I love the way Milius’s reflection ghosts, giving him the look of a man with two heads. As if Argento is commenting on the schism between intellectualism and superstition, or reinforcing an earlier comment by Milius’s colleague Dr Franco (Udo Kier): “bad luck isn’t brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds”.
It’s a phrase of such potency that Maitland McDonagh chose it for the title of her cornerstone study of Argento’s work. It sums up so much of his work. And for ‘Suspiria’ it’s a statement of intent.