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Love is Colder Than Death: Luca Guadagnino on Suspiria

Mia Goth as Sara and Dakota Johnson as Susie star in Suspiria

I’m not sure whether or not Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a masterpiece, but I’m certain that it warrants being compared to quite a few films that are. The one that immediately sprang to mind when the lights came up was The Godfather. With The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola took the gangster movie and attempted to expand its emotional range and social and political themes without sacrificing the visceral pleasures of genre filmmaking. Guadagino’s Suspiria attempts to do something similar with the horror film, with a startling degree of success.

Here is a curious fact of film history. Though horror movies are considered lowbrow by some, there is an interesting group of high-art cineastes whose most serious work bears the influence of horror codes and tactics. Before and after he made Vampyr, a masterpiece of horror, Carl Th. Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath was playing with horror film’s visual devices. All through his career, but notably in The Magician and Hour of the Wolf, Dreyer’s great disciple Ingmar Bergman incorporated horror-film shocks. When we get to Luis Buñuel’s 1960s masterpieces like Belle de Jour and Tristana, we are only a few steps away from the techniques that will be used in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Luca Guadagnino—whose pedigree as a maker of serious adult-oriented relationship dramas, such as his recent Call Me by Your Name, is fairly well established—has reversed the phenomenon I’m describing. He’s taken the familiar framework of horror films and packed it with the devices and obsessions of art cinema.

Guadagnino has spoken of his love for Dario Argento’s original Suspiria—as well as his own circumstances first encountering it—as his inspiration for this very different take on this tale. He nods to the original in two emphatic ways. The first is by setting the film in 1977, the year it was released, and the second is by creating a role for Jessica Harper, who starred in the original. 

But more specifically, how is it different?

Background: More than most horror films, Guadagnino’s Suspiria has a background. Poet John Keats said, “Touch has a memory,” and here Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich take Argento’s thematics of mythic evil and insist that evil has a history. They make their film’s main location Berlin in 1977, and the first words the audience hears refer to the Baader-Meinhof gang, a left-wing terrorist group whose activities were convulsing West Germany. They were highbrow terrorists from educated backgrounds who were obsessed with confronting the links between the government and Germany’s Nazi past. Some felt that this attempt drove the group’s members insane. A number of the members died under controversial circumstances in prison. It was uncertain whether they committed suicide or were the victims of state homicide. One of the filmmakers who wrestled with the Baader-Meinhof event was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. One of his diva leading ladies (and briefly his wife), Ingrid Caven, is a member of the witch’s coven in Guadagino’s Suspiria. It’s worth remembering that Fassbinder began his career leading a theater-film collective, known as anti-teater, that was notorious for the oddity of some of its sexual practices and was compared to a witch’s coven. Guadagnino’s coven also includes Angela Winkler, who appeared in several ’70s German films that confronted terrorism’s contaminating effect, notably The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and Germany in Autumn. The terrorism theme in Suspiria isn’t handed to you directly—it emerges from the edge of the frame, from things you hear offscreen, and then it blends, inexorably, with the historical memory of the Nazis. Evil has a history.

Suzy/Susie Bannion: Dario Argento’s protagonist Suzy Bannion is essentially Snow White, a virtuous audience surrogate, terrified almost from the start and preoccupied with investigating the horrible atmosphere she finds herself in. Guadagnino, Kajganich and their leading lady Dakota Johnson depart from this characterization in key ways. Because we must avoid spoilers, let’s suffice it to say that Suspiria 2018’s Susie is empowered in ways that Suzy was not. First and foremost, she is an artist of exceptional power who becomes the star of the company’s latest production with ultra-abrupt, nearly incomprehensible speed. Guadagnino and Kajganich also give Susie a considerable and significant backstory, her own traumatic history from long before the story’s present tense. When the blood starts flowing, her focus remains on performance.

Performance: Argento uses the ballet theater environment for magnificent moments of visual display in his Suspiria. But Guadagnino has made performance far more fundamental to his version. As we discuss below, he is in a serious conversation with a previous dance-themed art film that lifted some of its tactics from horror cinema and dealt with dying for your art, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The question underlying Guadagnino’s version is, how much of the violence we’re seeing is part of the myth of suffering for your art, a question that has been played out on all the bodies of the great dancers who’ve ever gone on stage. High art has a history, just like evil.

I’ve probably said enough. Perhaps too much. Let’s let the artist speak.

Filmmaker: For years, great art films borrowed the codes of horror cinema to deepen their work without actually making horror films themselves—Buñuel, Bergman, Resnais and Kubrick come to mind. To me, you’ve reversed that, using art film codes to deepen the horror film, much as Francis Ford Coppola did in The Godfather, when he decided to take a gangster story and make it into an operatic history film. Is that a valid way of thinking about your film?

Guadagnino: Well, thank you, it’s very flattering. Hour of the Wolf, The Shining, The Thing—[there were] so many great movies that were bold and unashamed endeavors in the horror genre from brilliant filmmakers. Don’t get me wrong, I also love the genre films, but if you have the possibility to make a movie from the perspective of your consciousness, it is not just an act of pure exercise in the genre. I think that’s something that is always very, very, let’s say, nurturing. So, I don’t want to say that there is a sort of higher ground and lower ground in the genre, but because the [horror] genre deals with things that are really promptly and directly with the unconscious, filmmakers who are able to investigate these thematics in a very consistent way can only be very happy to have the weapons, or, let’s say, the instruments of the horror genre. Having said that, I’m not putting myself on that pedestal. It’s my first horror movie, and in a little coquettish way I like to think that this was my first movie. I feel like this is a sort of regeneration for me, a sort of experiment where I could explore, within the very tactile horror genre, thematics I’m very interested in—the transmission of knowledge, the concept of power, the empowerment or diminishing of somebody in the relationship of power, history, guilt, desire. And that’s been very freeing and liberating.

Filmmaker: If I were to put it in one sentence, I would say that the theme of your Suspiria is that evil has a history.

Guadagnino: Well, I think that as much as I believe in the capacity of everything in human behavior—being good, being evil—I don’t divide in a sort of black-and-white scheme my sense of how we behave. I do think that a tendency toward evil, it’s something [connected] with human nature and that it stays in places. In a way, it impacts, even unwillingly and through time, our lives. In this case, the movie is set in a place, Berlin, and a time, 1977, that is very interesting because it resonates with the unerasable guilt of what happened in that place 35 years before, during the National Socialist regime. Which was, of course, something that came not out of nowhere, and that went to power thanks to the complete and full support of the nation of Germany. And then, you have a new generation in this movie that is antagonistic with the kind of dismissal of responsibility [for the Nazi era], but in doing so embraces violence as well. We are in the middle of this conflict, the conflict between the impossibility of a collective guilt and, at the same time, the indictment of those who do not want to bear the responsibility of their past. And at the same time, you have a group of women who are dancers, but they are witches. And they clearly decide to be [out] of the framing of this conflict. They [position] themselves almost as spectators, but in doing so they pursue their own agenda of evil. I like to think that these are layers of evil that coexist, and at the same time, [about] how humanity can resist it, how a sense of the human in every one of the characters can resist—and [then this resistance] is crushed, it is wiped off, it is cancelled. I think that’s what a horror movie should do—display the exercise of evil in the most uncompromising way.

Filmmaker: I know that, unlike other terrorist groups, the Baader-Meinhof Gang had solid intellectual credentials. They had links with people in high culture—artists and intellectuals. I knew German people in the ’70s and ’80s who knew members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, and there’s an ambiguity about their deaths: Were they suicides or were they murdered by law enforcement that covered it up? You have two German actresses in your film who were associated with German cinema from the ’70s. Could you discuss the symbolism of the Baader-Meinhof Group in Suspiria?

Guadagnino: Well, when we decided with the great Dave Kajganich to approach this film from the perspective of that period and those thematics, we decided that we really didn’t want to shy away from the conflict in that moment of history in Germany. There is a great movie from that moment called Germany in Autumn, a collective film which is really instrumental in understanding the mosaic of things in [Suspiria]. [In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s section,] Fassbinder plays himself, along with the mother and his lover. That movie was very influential for us because you see in it the revolt in the society. You see how the conflict becomes more and more severe within the society in Germany, in which the youth is desperate because they are not heard, and the extreme nature of that desperation becomes becoming terrorists, like in the Baader-Meinhof. And at the same time you see Fassbinder, whose short film is all about him and his sadomasochistic relationship with his lover and his mother, who he claims to be responsible for the oblivion of guilt in German society. She is being very nasty about the youth in revolt. And, yet, Rainer is not interested in that. He’s interested in his very violent relationship with his lover, which tells us that the private is political and the political is private. This movie was very influential for us because in Suspiria you have all of this. You see the conflict [between] the generations; you see, let’s say, the dark evil path of the Baader-Meinhof that, in a way, paces the events of the film and in history. And then you have the relationship between Madame Blanc [the choreographer played by Tilda Swinton] and Susie that is all violent, all about the seduction of art and intellect, a reconstruction of a possible, or impossible, mother–daughter relationship.

Filmmaker: By casting Ingrid Caven, you of course point the audience to Fassbinder. That’s obviously deliberate.

Guadagnino: Yes.

Filmmaker: Fassbinder sort of seems like a divinity behind this film, a little bit the way Visconti is the divinity behind I Am Love.

Guadagnino: Well, Fassbinder is a divinity for me. (laughs) I would say that also I Am Love is very heavily influenced by Fassbinder, more than Visconti. But Fassbinder and his cinema of cruelty is a very big influence for me—formally, thematically—and now I get to work with his wife, Ingrid Caven, which is fantastic.

Filmmaker: So, how did you originally come across Suspiria, the original Argento film, and what was the effect of seeing it? And when did the idea of a remake, which is not an inevitable idea, come to you?

Guadagnino: I think Suspiria found me, in the same way that the witches find Klemperer [a psychiatrist played by Lutz Ebersdorf]. I was at a summer camp in Italy. I was 10, and I was miserable because I was alone and not really matching my peers. We were obliged to go from the actual location of the summer camp to the seaside, and in doing so we had to cross this very empty, deserted-for-the-summer village called Cesenatico. And I remember very well the position of the theater, a movie theater that was shut down for the summer. They had left hanging there a poster and some photos from Suspiria. That was my first time I ever saw anything related to that film. I was so drawn to it, so obsessed by this graphic, this blob, this dancer with the head severed and the blood flowing through the body all the way down to the sex, and the title, and then the pictures from the movie, with all these bold colors and strange faces. These really planted a seed in me. Never underestimate the fantasy of a young man, or a young woman, how something that he feels, even unwantedly, can become so important in life. In fact, I saw the movie three-and-a-half years later, alone, terrified, but also totally lifted up by the film. I later learned that Dario Argento is one of the kindest filmmakers, his movies being very soft, and I mean it in a good way. He’s not the director of cruelty like Fassbinder is. He is a director of fairytales. He has the perfect approach, like in the sense of the Brothers Grimm, to a sense of fairytales that can hook a young person. And in fact I became hooked by him so strongly—[Suspiria] gave me the fantastic feeling of fear and desire. And at the same time, I had been a cinephile since I was five, and there was some sort of freedom in the way he was able to put together his movie, in the way in which the music was so aggressive, and the colors, and the big eyes of this beautiful young lady, Suzy Bannion.

Filmmaker: Did you reach out directly to Argento with the project of remaking the film?

Guadagnino: Well, I did a movie called Melissa P., a sort of film for hire, which eventually became a Sony Europe movie. Being kind of a control freak, the experience turned to be sort of nightmarish because I was devoid of any form of control. So, I started to go back more strongly to documentaries, and I became friends with a couple of people, in particular Marco Morabito, and we decided to make films together. Since I Am Love, Marco has produced all my movies, and I produce myself as well. I decided that I was never going to let go of complete control over my work, and when we put together our production company, we also discovered that I, Marco, and the other people that were part of the company, including the fashion designer Silvia Fendi, were all in love with Suspiria. Being crazy and ambitious, we said, “Why don’t we try to buy the rights?” It took Marco almost one year to convince Argento and to negotiate the options, and eventually the acquisition, of the rights. We started to develop the movie with David Gordon Green in 2008. Eventually that version didn’t happen, but I would have loved to have seen it. After David’s version didn’t come to fruition, I thought, “OK, I wanted to do it when I was young, and now I am back, and why not?” I started to talk about the project with my then writer of A Bigger Splash, Dave Kajganich. We started to think of the movie, we started to think of Germany in Autumn, we started to think of the things we liked the most, and then, after this long, beautiful conversation—and I say beautiful because we enjoyed the company of one another, mostly—Dave came with this beautiful script.

Filmmaker: Can you speak just a little bit more about your way of working with Dave Kajganich?

Guadagnino: Well, usually we spend a lot of time together—walking through streets and in stores and watching films. We start tackling little aspects of the movie that may be relevant, and then we go into the very big conversation about the larger picture of the film. Then, David goes away and comes back nine or ten weeks later with a script. And every time it’s beautiful.

Filmmaker: This is, of course, every screenwriter’s dream, having that type of relationship with a director.

Guadagnino: I love writers. I am a writer myself, but I’m not as good a writer as the writers I work with, so it’s a privilege for me, and I love my relationship with them. Cinema is, in a way, the creation of an impossible family. And for me, when you build this family, made out of relationships that come out of your desire to create something together, nothing more, it is a great environment. That’s why I tend to work many times with the same people, because if I found my soul mates I want to be with them.

Filmmaker: Dakota Johnson’s character, Susie Bannion, as you conceived of her, seems to me to depart in certain striking ways from the heroine of the original Suspiria.

Guadagnino: Oh, very much, very much.

Filmmaker: Can you discuss that difference without giving away too much of your plot?

Guadagnino: Well, I personally don’t believe in black and white, I don’t believe in evil and goodness separated from one another. If there is one thing that I could not agree with Dario Argento’s movie, which I love and think is a masterpiece, it is that there are good people and bad people. That I don’t believe. I don’t believe someone who shows off as a very good person cannot have his own darkness or perversities as much as I don’t think that it’s healthy to criminalize the identity of somebody because maybe his or her actions were patently bad in a moment of their life. So, of course, we had to explore the behavior in a way that is not so divided, so sharply white and black. I prefer grey, shadows, nuances of brown—that’s why this movie has this very subtle brownish, greenish, rust-ish kind of color palette, which comes off of these Fassbinder and Balthus paintings. How do you judge these paintings? Do you think that Balthus is a perverted old man who painted pictures of young, virgin girls? What was his relationship with his wife that [this subject matter] was still nurturing the flame of his art? What is the position of the viewer vis-à-vis these unsettling paintings? We wanted that.

Filmmaker: It seems to me that your Susie Bannion has a certain power that is uncharacteristic of the heroines of horror films.

Guadagnino: Yes. At the beginning of our conversation, I said, “This is about power.” Definitely, she has a great deal of power to find out about, to deal with, to apprehend.

Filmmaker: Late in the film, a character scaldingly accosts Madame Blanc and says, “You think this is about art.” There’s another genre—dance films like Black Swan and The Red Shoes—that deals with sufferings that go into making of art and the complicity between art and suffering. You glance at that tradition, but you have your own take on it.

Guadagnino: Well, I mean, I think I love the idea [of] this kind of battle for power within the coven of witches, between Madame Blanc, the great genius and inspiring choreographer, and Helena Markos, founder of the company and the founder of the coven. There is this kind of great intellectual divide, where somebody believes that maybe there is a time of renewal, where renewal means to just dedicate yourself to the deepest recesses of art, and someone else believes that renewal means the real, absolute sense of the word—renewing the house you built for yourself, the body that carries that kind of existence. You mentioned The Red Shoes—what is the relationship [between] Vicky and Lermontov if not that? Vicky loves art, but she loves her husband, and Lermontov wants to crush the love for what is outside of Vicky—to let her suffer for her love, for her art, while he neglects the idea that he himself is falling in love with her. That’s the tragedy of both Vicky and Lermontov in Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece. We thought a lot about that film, and we thought a lot about this kind of dynamic.

Filmmaker: One last question. Some of the people who love the warmth and the humanity of your last film are going to be angry at you for making a horror film. What do you say to them?

Guadagnino: Look closely. Don’t be angry. Watch the movie, and let yourself be affected by this movie as much as you got affected by Call Me by Your Name, because both movies speak of people and talk about people’s emotions. Sometimes it’s about a sort of melancholic infusion of love, sometimes it’s about a crushing acting-out of violence. It’s always about people for me. It’s never about anything other than that.

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