I skipped a year on my blog as, last year, I dedicated myself to a project of creating audio commentary for Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. The idea was kind of an art project. The movie itself is so well known for supposedly defying logic that I sought to undermine that interpretation with a logical psychological explanation for the film’s plot while, at the same time, my audio commentary itself almost imperceptibly devolved into a kind of irrational, trancelike, decadent, bordering-on-pretentious kind of expressionism of its own.
Unfortunately, as it’s very hard keeping anyone’s attention for a rather thick, rapidly delivered spoken word commentary lasting an hour and a half, it was not really a success for the average viewer. I was going to redo the commentary with an appropriate voice-actor, but I’ve decided that my “close reading,” with all of its analytical eccentricities and overly florid or overtly awkward turns-of-tongue made in (loving) homage to the film, works better as a combination of text and explanatory pictures. I’m removing the original video commentary from my Youtube channel: a failed experiment. Hopefully this new version, edited and slightly refined, will redeem the project and be of interest to other Dario Argento fans.
Here is part one of my scene-by-scene dissection of SUSPIRIA’s psychological symbolism presented as a kind of picture book with notations. Prior familiarity with the film may be required for full understanding, though I can’t say that full understanding is necessarily my intention.
NOTES ON SUSPIRIA:
On the soundtrack, an electronic drum roll builds violently to an orgasmic, rallying, gunshot crescendo. Whether the release is sexual or violent or both is hard to say. The little death of orgasm transgresses the defining borders of life. This intangible, liminal moment is labeled and made concrete by the title card: SUSPIRIA: sighs. The word is Latin for an open mouthed breath (as opposed to the closed breath of language and the logical narrative that language requires.)
The music box lullaby that follows, as the credits of SUSPIRIA flash by, has a childlike simplicity made ominous by punctuating sighs. The suggestion is of innocence made uncanny by the knowledge of sexuality or death. Or perhaps the sighs represent the aural memory of a pre-linguistic state that remains in childhood: a buried primal orgasm threatening the symbolic order of words, labels and organized language.
An introductory, explanatory voice-over narrative uncomfortably contrasts with the music and recalls the reassuring “once upon a time” of fairy tales that neuter the horrors of the world for the sake of the children. But the voiceover seems too artificial, too forced (almost campy,) and it slowly dissolves back to music before the narrator can complete a full sentence: a failure.
The fading voiceover also comments metaphorically upon the corresponding image of flight schedules. I am reminded of how Einstein was inspired to conceive of the Theory of Relativity by looking at the clocks in the Zurich train station. I am also reminded of how Ingmar Bergman contrasts two women at the start of his film PERSONA. One switches on and off her electric light, applying a face mask, and fretting over her personal schedule and goals in life. The other listens to music, a far away look in her eyes, while the sun slowly sinks outside her window and her image incrementally fades, almost imperceptibly, into darkness.
Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA
The unknown cannot be oriented by the measurement of time or distance or with the force of any fixed, familiar narrative. Life spills out and evolves: messy, violent, and sexual. The drum roll returns like a force of nature and more complex forms of narrative must be contrived, new technologies developed to chart and control and render life’s passages safe and…
Argento’s films constantly return to the visual theme of framed, flat surfaces and their penetration. These flat surfaces evoke the frame of the film screen itself and their penetration often represents communication of unpleasant knowledge or emotions. As in psychological repression, or in art, the surfaces of an Argento film, in every sense of the word, are constructed so as to both reveal and conceal the truth beyond it. How these tricky surfaces provide invitation or resistance to penetration, how that is felt by the characters and expressed to the viewer, and the means by which the surfaces are penetrated, is always of great metaphorical significance.
Whether they appear as walls, doors, windows, paintings, or skin, these surfaces as portals usually represent a threatening transition from one world, or one state of being, into another. As in psychoanalysis, crossing through them can be part of a redemptive process of self-individuation even with (and perhaps because of) the dread they provoke.
In the airport at the beginning of SUSPIRIA, Suzy Banyon is made distinct from the crowd (and thus introduced as the protagonist) by her irrational precognitive dread of doors that seem mundane on the surface but open to reveal an unusually pointed, phallic internal mechanism that symbolically transforms the doors into vagina dentata.
She is leaving through this toothed vagina from one kind of womb, the familiar airport carefully narrated by storytellers and arrival/departure notices, for another darker womb. She’s now in a fairy tale version of the Black Forest: the womb of a barren, evil mother in which she must fend for herself in the face of all the chaos that life may throw at her.
A similar taxi cab is taken to the homes of the Three Mothers in each of the films of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (of which SUSPIRIA is the first). I’ll discuss the mythology of the Three Mothers in later installments of this essay, but for now I want to note that the cab ride, for me, seems an obvious reference to Charon’s boat to the underworld and that the underworld represents the unconscious mind in Jungian symbolism.
Water is also a Jungian symbol for the unconscious and, in this case, Suzy seems to be plunging into the depths of water while still somewhat protected by the reversed aquarium of the taxi cab’s windows. Having just passed with Suzy through a symbolic vagina dentata, I think of the taxi cab as a castrated penis flushed into the heart of darkness like a fecal submarine.
This kind of Freudian free association is not too extreme, I think. At this point Suzy has just been cut off from the body of society and its protection: castrated. Language is breaking down. She must resort to visual communication with her driver through the flat surface of a window simultaneously masking her own face.
I believe that, in his symbolism, Argento draws from Freud, Jung, and the combination of linguistics and psychology found in Lacan. The breakdown of language is a recurring theme in SUSPIRIA and communication itself is often presented as a mask that must be penetrated or, alternatively, penetrate another surface in order to function. It is no coincidence that Argento subliminally inserts into this scene his own face, frozen in a laugh or scream, reflecting from the glass partition that separates Suzy from her driver.
In SUSPIRIA, in particular, Argento often supplements his typical use of flat surfaces with a variety of grid patterns, parallel lines, or the quick juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical lines in sequential shots. These designs represent a kind of surface that is like a fence: resistant to the passage of most living things, but permeable to the elements of water, fire, earth, and air. It’s a selective kind of surface as portal: a screen.
One dramatic example of a screen being traversed by the elements is when the headlamps of Suzy’s cab cut through the vertical trunks of a forest and flare in the camera’s lens. At the same time, like the title card of the movie previously labeled breath into a word, a formless sigh on the soundtrack now freezes into a hissing accusation: witch!
Shortly thereafter, the unnatural fire of the headlamp, cast from beyond the screen of the woods, is balanced by the natural fire of lightning cast from behind the camera (or through the screen of the camera and viewer) throwing a shadow upon a tree trunk. It is likely just the shadow of leaves from a small bush or branch, but it is in the shape of a Grim Reaper’s blade.
Suzy Banyon arrives at the Freiburg Dance Academy:
The academy is a fairytale Gothic construction that, slick with rain, appears to have been sculpted fresh from blood. Argento built the exterior structure of the academy on a set but it is an exact reproduction of the actual House of Wales in Freiberg which is famous for having been the temporary home of the Humanist scholar Erasmus. Argento goes so far as to reproduce the plaque associating Erasmus with the real building and calling it to the viewer’s attention.
Erasmus fought against the corruption of the Catholic Church and, in his most important book, used a Platonic parable as argument for the concept that something on the inside is more expressive of its character than what one sees on the outside. In other words: appearances are deceiving. This concept is central to understanding all three films in Argento’s trilogy.
Suzy is denied entrance when she first arrives at the Freiburg Dance Academy. In a sense, it is not yet ready for her. It needs to make room for her introduction. To that end another pupil, Pat, has just been ejected from its doors, panicked, and shouting words obscured by the elements.
The memory of Pat, and her bad example as a pupil, will become central to Suzy’s own story as the film unfolds. The most important “surface as portal” to be penetrated and crossed in SUSPIRIA is the entirely internal, invisible action of recalling this one lost moment buried, seemingly insignificant, in Suzy’s unconscious mind.
Pat, as eager to leave as Suzy is to arrive, is both Suzy’s double and a reflection of her own “shadow self.” She represents Suzy’s predestined fate – everything this building and its occupants will want her to become – as well as providing the key to rebelling against that imprisoning narrative.
Unable to access the school, Suzy turns to leave in the cab and what follows is the first of many completely disorienting edits in SUSPIRIA.
From the medium shot of Suzy entering the cab, Argento cuts to a quickly panning long shot of the dark woods. The soundtrack also changes abruptly to a raucous, chaotic, multi-layered electronic score. One is unable to immediately identify what one is looking at until Pat is seen, briefly, running through the trees as if for her life. It is a complete violation of traditional editing rules: a jarring gap in narrative flow which the viewer must stretch in order to span.
I’ve watched SUSPIRIA with many first time viewers and, inexplicably, they often confuse this image of Pat running through the woods for Suzy Banyon. This is in spite of having just seen Suzy safely enter her cab and, though understandably confounded by such an abrupt edit, being helpfully reoriented visually by a cut back to Suzy, now in the cab, watching Pat flailing through the trees.
Remarkably, this one edit performs two important functions: mistakingly identifying Suzy with Pat and also giving the impression that an important part of the narrative has been skipped and must be reconstructed by the viewer.
This short sequence is quickly followed by another disorienting cut to an image of an abstract, green smudge floating in a darkness within which one can just barely make out some angular forms resembling windows. As the shadow of Pat’s foot disrupts the image, it’s revealed as a puddle reflecting the second architectural wonder of SUSPIRIA – a film in which buildings are characters – seen distorted and upside down in the water.
Pat will soon make it clear that, at this point, she has had enough of worlds turned upside-down and inside out and that this building is her best hope for escape.
The exterior of the building Pat approaches is actually Burgstraße 4 in Munich, Germany, shown here by Wikimaps in a remarkably less ominous light:
For the interior, Argento and his set designers created, as solace for the distressed Pat, an apartment lobby composed entirely of mathematical angles and uncanny symmetry. It could be interpreted as a satire of the rational mind hard at work reinforcing itself.
The elevator doors reveal traditional Islamic iconography as they close around Pat: a symbol of water as an oasis in the desert, a place of rest. The image of a fountain, repeated in the design, spouts six streams of light blue water like the Six of Cups tarot card representing childhood and innocence. However, its meaning could be interpreted as reversed by a red triangle, the alchemical symbol of fire, so as to represent naiveté and destructive nostalgia.
“You wouldn’t understand. It all seems so absurd, so fantastic. All I can do is get away from here as soon as possible.”
Not giving Argento’s work the benefit of the doubt, some peg his actors as laughably amateurish or just badly dubbed. Whether or not it is always intended throughout his body of work, in SUSPIRIA the slightly unnatural acting delivery works in favor of the film. The American actress who plays Suzy, Jessica Harper, has a relaxed, naturalistic style that contrasts with all the other mannered, over the top performances as stylized and unnatural as the sets they populate.
Sometimes the scripted dialogue does have an absurdist quality that can be interpreted as amateurish or badly translated into English without regard to realism. Ironically, a careful analysis of such overtly absurd dialogue suggests that it is being purposely utilized to emphasize the gap between spoken language, thought, and our perceptions of reality. This failure of language (or any form of expression) to truthfully, reliably reflect our experience is what allows it to be manipulated, decontextualized, and used as a weapon of destruction: a curse.
Pat uses the bathroom at her friend’s apartment and it soon becomes the launching pad for the film’s first ornate murder set piece. The walls of the bathroom are painted with a design inspired by M.C. Escher.
Escher used precise mathematical equations to design this slow transition of birds of the air, which is the element of the intellect and language, into fishes of the water, the element of emotions and the unconscious mind.
Pat struggles and fails or refuses to translate into language, mathematical or otherwise, the absurd, fantastic secret she’s discovered at the ballet school. She therefore cannot unite the irrational elements of the unconscious mind with the rational external world. Unlike the birds and fishes in Escher’s design, for Pat the border between emotion and intellect is a surface she cannot penetrate. Instead, she uses the intellect, represented by the apartment building and her reassuring, rationalizing friend, as a form of escape, a means of masking the terrible, emotional memories of her experience at the ballet school.
As a result, in a perfect metaphor for the “return of the repressed,” Pat finds the cast off aspects of her unconscious mind returning in the form of wind (throwing open the windows), which represents the element of the rational intellect (air) now distorted and made daemonic by its use as a tool for repression.
From the symbolic perspective of her own rebelling unconscious, Pat is shown from outside the restroom’s window through two surfaces: the transparent surface of the window and a shadow of fabric tossed by the wind.
Inside the restroom, Pat frames herself in the protective, familiar safety of the rational world, but its boundaries are as transparent as a glass window and the flimsy clothing tossed by the wind on their line. It provides no secure barrier against what lies beyond.
Pat is aware of her vulnerability, of the frailty of her meager defenses, and yet she is drawn to the window. She is subject to the irrational after all. In the above still, the phallic form of the bathroom furniture is doubled in the negative space of the windows.What is solid and useful in this world, probably used (like mathematics or language) as an enclosure or storage space, is brittle and transparent when used as a defense against another world…and it is subject to penetration.
The moment depicted above – Pat’s use of a lamp to get a better view through the window – requires some explanation as, typical of Argento, it defies the rational. However, it is not so irrational as to call itself to the viewers attention as anything other than shoddy writing or a horror movie trope.
I’ve had more than one friend chuckle and ask, “Why is she holding that lamp up to the window? She’ll only see her own reflection!” Well, yes…exactly. That is the psychological truth of the situation reflected metaphorically. If, in an Argento film, the heroine suddenly trips over her own feet while running away from a killer it’s not because that’s what victims in horror movies always do, it’s because, at some level, the heroine wants to be caught. Cliches in an Argento film are another surface that must be penetrated in order to be understood.
In this case the cat-like eyes of the killer, piercing through both the window glass and the shadowy clothing hanging just outside of it, are also Pat’s own eyes, the reflection of her own unconscious mind about to attack. Clothes line. Eye line…
I’m personally amused by the ironic response to the murder by Pat’s friend. In service to the rational tempering of emotion, she had previously been nonchalant and dismissive about the process of closure, “Big deal, I always get kicked out of school…” “Hey! Why don’t you close it? It’s just the wind!” Now she finds herself desperately trying to get closed doors to open in order to save Pat’s life. Too late…
As Pat, herself, becomes a surface to be penetrated she is transported, in another completely abrupt, disorienting editing transition, to an alien location presumably outside the apartment building. It’s just her here, the hand of the murderer, and walls made up of grids and screens. Grid patterns abound. Clothes line. Eye line. Grid lines. There’s a play on linearity here.
It is a line that, through the eyes of the murderer and, in some shots, the eyes of the viewer via the camera, is reversed back upon Pat. Line of logic. Line of narrative. Here the murderer, Pat’s unconscious mind, controls the line and literally binds her within it: this is insanity by definition.
Pat’s heart is penetrated and she dies. Pats problem is that she is unable to deal with the irrational, emotional elements of her life and copes by running away into poorly defended intellectual rationalizations. Considering this, it could be considered symbolically redemptive that her heart is now pierced, like a valentine, leaving a tiny vagina-like opening seeping blood: a portal for possible entry.
From the outside in, crashing through the geometric window poised above this mathematical castle like the face of Apollo, Pat is dropped on a line into a world that is now shattered and abstracted by the intrusion of the unconscious turned daemonic. The line of the intellect has been turned into a noose and Pat’s last link to the rational world outside the dance academy, her last chance to indulge in escapism, her only outside friend, is killed along with her by jagged falling glass.
The face of her friend is divided like some Picassoesque double-headed Janus: the god of beginnings, transitions, portals and doors.
Finally, very subtly, the camera shakes as if by accident. The viewer is reminded that this is a movie. It is all artificial. It is all just an image projected upon a surface.
END OF PART ONE