Wednesday, October 16, 2013

SUSPIRIA (1977)

We've endured the compleat HOWLING and now it's time for a reward, in the form of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy.  

SYNOPSIS: American Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet skills in the most famous dance school in Europe.  After blood has been let and splashed across the primary-colored landscape of this German town, she discovers that the dance school has a past rooted in the occult and that it's run by devotees of ancient evil arts.

WHAT WORKED:
SUSPIRIA gives us a lot to love, so let's praise it chronologically.  The very first thing the film does well, even before it paints the screen with red and blue light, is link this story to a long literary tradition.  Over the credits, we hear a narrator saying what I wrote as the first sentence in the synopsis.  It's SUSPIRIA's version of "Once upon a time" and establishes the film as much more fantastic than Dario Argento's gialli, which definitely get surreal, but still remain rooted in the real world.  SUSPIRIA throws all that through the window and establishes its own world, to our delight.  


It also tracks back, thematically, to the sort of "innocent American abroad" motif that made Henry James a big deal for a little while.  It's pretty remarkable that a European crew and European writers would be able to convincingly portray the alien atmosphere of Europe from an American's standpoint.  Suzy's first interaction with another person comes when a cab driver makes her lug her own bags, then ignores her attempts at German pronunciation, and just glares at her when she tries to make American-style small talk about the weather.  The hostility of the old world introduces itself right away.


That whole arcane exchange is just a teaser, and at this point SUSPIRIA's amaranthine weirdness is just some blossoming potential thing.  But the deal gets sealed once Suzy arrives at the dance academy and we're awash in blues and reds and a harried girl rushes out into the storm.  Most of the rest of the film occurs in this dreamy/fairy tale atmosphere, which is most visibly developed through the use of light and set design...


...but also in the interactions and behavior of the characters, which seem to be pulled straight out of children's scare tales at times.  There are scenes in which footsteps are counted so characters can find their way to secret lairs.  And there's the beautifully deranged scene below, in which grown-up cigarette-smoking dancers act like third graders.  "I once read that names that begin with the letter S—are the names of SNAKES!"


Performances and characters are commendable.  Dario Argento's name looms deservedly large over horror, but you never really hear anybody rep Daria Nicolodi, who birthed the story of a witch-run dance academy, allegedly based on her grandmother's old tales.  The basic premise is pretty simple, although there are enough subtle elements to make the film worth rewatching, like the sign by the door that names Desiderius Erasmus (author of The Praise of Folly, which attacks old superstitions among other things).


You never really hear anyone champion the actors in SUSPIRIA either, since everything is overshadowed by Argento's muscular direction and the astounding set pieces.  But, goddammit, Jessica Harper is pitch-perfect in this as Suzy Banyon!  Her body language (especially during one dance scene) and facial expressions really keep the film anchored and the tone consistent.  Also golden is Alida Valli as the school's harshest teacher.  Valli excels in a very difficult role, exuding harshness and menace without yelling and barking (that often).  It's a gem of a performance, maybe the movie's best.  Plus she pioneered the spray tan/very white teeth combo long before Paris and Miley.


But, yeah, okay, SUSPIRIA is probably most famous for its visual richness and ambitious direction.  The film has a lot of art and is art, but it is also pretty ambiguous about art as a thing.  I mean, we learn that this academy devoted to the art of dance was once also devoted to darker arts.  Death scenes look like art exhibits, not least because people are periodically killed with the machinery of art.  

SUSPIRIA impresses us and Suzy with its shell of beauty, this elaborately-designed house.  But, as she and we learn, a comely shell is all that it is...


...and the interior is completely corrupt.


This is all right in line with much of Argento's career, from THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE until at least THE STENDHAL SYNDROME.  His films have returned to the intersection of art and violence again and again (TENEBRAE is probably the most obvious example, actually).  So what does it say about SUSPIRIA as a whole that it's predicated so much on, and so famous for, visual beauty?  Dunno, but there is a crystal-plumaged bird in it.


We can debate that, but no one can deny that SUSPIRIA is art.  The visual style, the performances, the music by Goblin, and Argento's careful, studied hand guiding it all.  SUSPIRIA is the intersection of traditional visual aesthetics with cinematic technique, all the smash cuts and crane shots serving as vehicles for respected frightening goals.  Everything here is consistent and deliberately executed, which blows your mind when you really consider the complexity of the design.  Even swimming pool scenes are beautiful enough to be stored in museums.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
If forced, I might say that some won't enjoy the intermittent dubbing.  Like a lot of Italian movies of this era, SUSPIRIA was filmed with a multi-national cast using their own native tongues, then dubbed for assorted markets later (with dialogue in English, Italian, French, etc.).  I personally don't mind this at all.  When it's noticeable (not often), it only adds to the film's strange atmosphere.  But if you know any hipsters or college professors who insist on foreign films being in native tongues for "authenticity", print out this paragraph so you can have it ready at hand when you host your SUSPIRIA party.


In closing, fuck yeah SUSPIRIA!

RATING: 10

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