Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ambiguities in Suspiria

I'm not an expert on Argento like James at Behind The Couch who has published a book on the director LINK but I love Suspiria and when I watched it again recently I was struck by its ambiguities: that the events in the film might not be supernatural at all but (para)psychological. Of course,  Argento pretty much signals this in the scene where Udo Keir gives the famous ‘broken mirrors, broken minds’ speech but it’s intriguing to watch the film with these ambiguities in mind. 

To start with, Argento’s positioning of the main character is interesting: Suzy is neutral – she neither believes nor disbelieves in witchcraft. Instead, like so many Argento characters, she is unwittingly drawn into a mystery that she feels compelled to resolve through rational means. She is a contrast to the neurotic Sara and the hysterical Pat – whose histories of mental breakdown make them ripe for suggestion. She is un-sentimental and, as Tanner remarks, ‘strong-willed’ (Jessica Harper played similar no-nonsense women in ‘Phantom of the Paradise’ and the little-seen ‘Inserts’); she provides a strong backbone for the film in terms of exploring its rational/supernatural ambiguities.

Suzy enters a world of the uncanny...

Her arrival in to a world of the uncanny - symbolised by the opening storm as she leaves the airport at Friburg – can be read as her entering a ‘collective mental state’ of hysteria and superstition.  Argento shows this hysteria to be contagious – all the ballet dancers in the school seem to be affected by it – even the hard-headed Olga, who first offers Suzy lodgings ‘at a price’, seems to be on the edge of sanity (Freud would doubtless say that all this hysteria was down to the sexual frustrations of all these women cooped up together). Suzy, despite her rational mindedness, succumbs to it briefly when she becomes suggestible to psychic attack in the corridor (it is interesting that Argento keeps her incapacitated for some sections of the film) but it is because of her rational nature that Suzy recovers from this and it is really her friendship with Sara that draws her deeper into the mystery - into uncovering the ‘secret of the iris’ - than any firm belief in ‘witches’.

...and succumbs to mass hysteria

Indeed there is maybe very little in Suspiria that might not have a rational or (para)psychological explanation.  Understanding Argento’s idea of ‘broken minds’ even helps to explain some of the ‘arbitrary’ episodes in the film that seem to have no purpose within the plot: such as the maggot invasion and the bat attack. Once you believe in the supernatural, then all natural phenomenon might be the work of occult forces: bad weather (the storm at the beginning), strange animal behaviour (Daniel's dog attack), inexplicable accidents. These incidents in the film explore this mind-set.

....that gives strange natural events - like the bat attack - a 'supernatural' meaning

Argento is also careful to maintain ambiguity in the murder sequences: we see only the killer’s arms. They are strange, hairy and freakish – they may be the arms of a demon, but then again maybe not. The eyes that Pat sees through the window glinting in the darkness might be those of a cat, not related to the killer at all. Argento never presents us with something that is indisputably supernatural, unlike, say Polanski  in ‘The Ninth Gate’, who shows us Emmanuelle Seigner doing the physically impossible by floating down steps. In Suspiria, the killers might be demons or 'familiars' conjured up by the witches; or they might be human acolytes, 'brainwashed' into doing the witches' bidding. There is a moment when we briefly see the back of Sara's killer, dressed in a cape, walking away from us:  it might even be Richard, the young penniless dancer who has a crush on Suzy and who also works for Miss Tanner and Miss Blanc.

Sara's killer is glimpsed briefly from behind

Once it is accepted that witchcraft has a (para)psychological explanation even ‘necromancy’ – the raising of the dead – can be explained rationally: the result of hypnosis/suggestion/hallucination. When Sara seemingly rises from her slab to confront Suzy, it may only be that Suzy ‘hallucinates’ this under the suggestion of Elena Markos (as is implied by Sara’s apparition ‘fading away’ when Suzy stabs the old witch to death). And the final destruction of the Tanz academy with its exploding lightbulbs and self-destructing walls might also be Suzy’s hallucination or telekinesis. Certainly her enigmatic smile at the end suggests that, having escaped the academy, she is already mentally shrugging off the ‘hysteria’ to which she and Sara and the others might have succumbed.

Sara's apparation fades ...Suzy emerges from her madness.
Either way, the ambiguities in Suspiria only add to the enjoyment of a great film that is already rich in allusions to everything from Freud to early German Expressionist horror films, to the writings of Poe and DeQuincey.


Maynard Morrissey said...

wonderful article, fully agree with you. If you accept that Suspiria takes place in some kinda supernatural Argento-parallel-universe, it all makes perfectly sense

Jon T said...

Thanks! Good luck at the blog awards!

James Gracey said...

Wonderful stuff! This has put me in the mood to watch Suspiria this evening - but to do so from the angle you've so eloquently suggested here. I guess for such an unsubtle film, there is quite a bit of ambiguity you can read into proceedings. I've always just gone with the notion that supernatural shenanigans are afoot - but I dig the idea that it could be read as something more (para)psychological.

And thanks so much for the link to your site - I'm going to enjoy having a wee nosy around. ;)

Jon T said...

Thanks, James. It's great to have you over. Enjoy!