She Wants to Get Inside Me: The Body and the Body Politic in Suspiria

Suspiria (2018) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

In 2018, Luca Guadagnino released his long anticipated take on Suspiria, a cult classic giallo originally made by director Dario Argento in 1977. Guadagnino’s film runs one hour longer than Argento’s and offers much more backstory: He designates the protagonist, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), as a runaway member of the Ohio Mennonite Church; he features the violence and disruption of Cold War domestic terrorism in the background of many scenes; he expands the world of dance, integrating it with both the plot and the thematic construct of dark magic in a way the original barely touched. Argento’s film achieves an aesthetic cohesion so vivid and precise that the color palette remains its defining feature. When I close my eyes and think of Argento’s Suspiria, I see red; when I do the same with Guadagnino’s, I see bone.

Whereas Argento’s unsuspecting protagonist Suzy (Jessica Harper) is a beautiful and meek heroine who seems unable to solve the puzzle of the haunted dance academy until the last available moment, Guadagnino’s Susie takes charge of her fate before the audience even realizes it. She has been drawn to both dance and Berlin all her life, and on re-watching the film, I look for the shift in Johnson, the moment Susie realizes who she truly is. Guadagnino’s ending seems at first to reflect this shift: Susie has not only agency, but authority. She does not stumble into her victory by happy accident like Argento’s predecessor; instead she orchestrates every moment of her triumph. Susie is, on the surface, a more progressive female protagonist than Suzy—but despite Guadagnino’s narrative changes, his Suspiria still engages women’s bodies as the body politic, sacrificing those bodies for a greater collective goal. 

The body is an essential element of Suspiria. Guadagnino presents a thoroughly studied text on the role of modern dance in Cold War art and culture, with dance sequences that speak to sexual liberation, communal pain and healing, and exploitation of the body and mind. Argento’s film mostly features background actors in short, traditional ballet combinations. When Suzy gets dizzy and falls ill at rehearsal, it’s quite noticeable that Harper isn’t actually dancing; only her upper body is in the frame. Guadagnino, in contrast, uses the history of modern dance in post-war Germany to his advantage, inserting several neo-expressionist dance sequences into his film. He stresses the historical association of the female body with supernatural or satanic forces, as dance becomes a vehicle for witchcraft. Susie harnesses an otherworldly power through dance, a trope seen everywhere from The Red Shoes to Midsommar. In Guadagnino’s Suspiria, the feminine, the violent, the artistic, the sensual, and the satanic all become one. 

Where Harper’s Suzy is one of many unsung dancers, Johnson’s Susie is the star pupil of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She quickly climbs the ranks and earns the principal role in “Volk,” a dance Madame Blanc first choreographed in the 1940s and performed through wartime. “Volk,” or “people,” was a common rallying cry of National Socialists, as the early 20th-century völkisch, or people’s, movement laid the foundation for Nazism. Like his exploration of Cold War politics, Guadagnino’s reference here is delightfully unsubtle. Those familiar with German history would immediately recognize the significance of Madame Blanc welcoming the audience to a dance entitled “Volk,” and those versed in modern dance would see the similarities between the film’s satanic dance and that of renowned Weimar-era choreographer Mary Wigman

Wigman was a pioneer of modern expressionist dance, pre-dating the other German giant, Pina Bausch. David Kajganich, who wrote the screenplay for Guadagnino’s Suspiria, claimed Wigman as an inspiration for his conception of the dance academy. Wigman is best known for three distinct versions of her “Hexentanz,” or “Witch Dance,” the last version performed with special permission from Third Reich officials. Though the film is full of visual and physical references to Wigman and her work, it neglects to mention her by name, perhaps because of her ambiguous connections to fascism—she dismissed Jewish dancers in her company under Nazi orders; their fates are not known. While the coven of Suspiria has plenty of corrupt and violent conflict, Madame Blanc notes that the Markos Company rallied against Nazism through their art during the war. This distinction between the different types of communal corruption grows more important as the coven disintegrates.

German popular interest in witchcraft and the occult peaked under the Third Reich, as some Nazi officials sought to distance Germans from organized Christianity in favor of a return to traditional German—somewhat bastardized—pagan practices. Heinrich Himmler, best known as the orchestrator of the Holocaust, was obsessed with witches and the power they represented as authentic Aryan women. He believed that most medieval witch hunts were organized by Protestant churches, as well as Jewish mobs, to identify and kill powerful German women. The Markos Company, and the bodily liberation it represented, was thereby repressed by both the traditional patriarchal church and the cult of domesticity propagated under Nazism. 

Unlike Argento’s film, which does not overtly explore the politics of 1970s Germany, Guadagnino’s film ostensibly becomes a critique of Nazism and subsequent Cold War authoritarianism. Susie frees the dancers from the binds of the corrupt government of Markos and Blanc. The witches become paragons for women’s liberation, a coven with artistic and sexual freedom—the stuff of anti-feminist nightmares. Guadagnino’s condemnation of dictatorship becomes ironic when considering Argento’s subtle association of the witch as Jew in his earlier film. Argento’s dance matrons have a sneaking obsession with money and are feared by local Christians, who think they know the true nature of the mothers. They move around constantly, fleeing cities and countries whenever someone uncovers their secret. To many viewers, Argento’s witches are archetypal monsters, possessors of the demonic feminine qualities that can manipulate and destroy innocents. But putting Argento’s Suspiria in the context of broader 20th-century European conflicts allows for more nuanced, less one-dimensional interpretations of the witch, and might explain why Guadagnino and his team leaned in to heavier political themes.

Guadagnino’s film does not address the witch as wandering Jew in either a positive or negative light. While the original Suspiria brims with immigration panic—the constant paranoia that outsiders will infiltrate and conquer your territory and culture—Guadagnino’s seeps with gay panic. Susie’s sexuality blossoms as she studies with the Markos Company, and she is encouraged to explore her body and newfound independence. Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) groans to her psychiatrist about Madame Blanc’s obsession with her, “She wants to get inside me.” The dancers blur the boundaries of the platonic and the romantic, as Madame Blanc kisses each student before class, Sara climbs into Susie’s bed to comfort her, and the Company ultimately forms a naked, writhing matriarchy of the occult. While dance and theater obscure some conservative social boundaries naturally, as dancers change in crowded dressing rooms and share each other’s body weight in choreography, the film’s shot composition emphasizes Susie’s sexual awakening. The more choreography she learns, the more sexually free she becomes, grinding against the floor as she is drawn to the waiting witch below its surface. This association of the supernatural and the sexual is made clear by juxtaposed shots of the floor and close-ups of Johnson’s rear as she pushes her body as close to the floor as possible. 

Guadagnino’s changed ending both celebrates and denigrates the liberated woman by associating her with witchcraft. Despite the use of electronic music, exploration of German Cold War politics, and the shift from a bloody neon red to a tonalist color palette, the new ending is the most notable difference in his recent adaptation. Fans expressed shock at this new ending, though retrospectively, it’s clear that Guadagnino hints at Susie’s true fate throughout the film. 

In the original, Suzy recalls the words of Patricia (Eva Axén) the night she fled the academy, leading her to a hidden passageway where she discovers the mutilated body of Sara (Stefania Casini). She accidentally awakens Helena Markos (Lela Svasta), who possesses Sara’s bloody body in an attempt to kill Suzy. But Suzy sees the outline of Markos’ fleshy, decomposing body behind a curtain when lightning flashes. As the demonic Sara approaches, Suzy stabs Markos in an ending that may feel too convenient to contemporary consumers of horror. The witches shriek, the academy burns, and Suzy escapes unscathed as the credits roll. 

Guadagnino does not employ these now-cliché tropes of horror, but instead creates with his ending an almost interminable fantasia on the body and the body politic. As Susie creeps toward madness and begins to understand her role in the coven—even communicating telepathically with Madame Blanc about her knowledge of the past, present, and future of the group—she goes to greet Markos with dignity and grace. She appears unfazed by students dancing wildly at a witches’ Sabbath while the matrons torture Dr. Klemperer (Swinton in heavy prosthetics) and prepare to sacrifice Sara (Mia Goth), Olga (Elena Fokina), and Patricia. Madame Blanc wants to affirm Susie’s consent in the possession, and Markos maims the matron for interfering. Susie then confronts Markos about her corrupt governance of the coven, and, as her biological mother succumbs to death back in Ohio, she summons Death itself and reveals herself as Mater Suspiriorum, one of the original Three Mothers from whom all other witches spring. She kills Markos, grants painless deaths to the ravaged Sara, Olga, and Patricia, and encourages the students to keep dancing in her honor. When they wake the next morning, the students think the Sabbath was but a nightmare. 

This invocation of the title character reinstates Susie’s agency, as she may be in control of her fate from the moment she enters the academy. Flashbacks show her drawn to Berlin as a child: her mother burns her fingers with an iron when she rejects her American geography lesson in favor of learning about her German Anabaptist roots. Dream sequences show Susie dancing with Madame Blanc and exploring her ethereal dance abilities—which seem to live within her despite her acknowledged lack of training—as a rebellious teenager in Ohio. She cries out in the middle of the night, “I know who I am!” Close-ups of her face frequently feature her breathing heavily, only to juxtapose her breath with the diseased snores of her dying mother. In this respect, the revelation that Susie is literally the mother of sighs feels obvious, perhaps even stilted. Whether or not the foreshadowing comes across as imaginative or heavy-handed, Susie’s evolution from unwitting victim to the orchestrator of the film’s events is refreshing, as it reflects an enlightened interpretation of the witch. 

Yet even as the plot suggests women’s liberation from oppressive forces, the male gaze still subtly permeates through the very conceit of sacrifice. Susie revolts against the patriarchal order of the Ohio Mennonite Church, sneaking off to see dance performances and making her way to Germany without her family’s approval. Her tattered, fringed dance costumes that barely cover her body are a far cry from her stiff Mennonite dresses. Along on Susie’s journey with her, we praise her courage for leaving home and embracing the modern world. 

Other instances of Susie’s rebellion against the patriarchy are not so innocuously progressive. In a dream-flashback sequence, she uses a sharp hook, one seen throughout the film as a torture device, as a masturbatory instrument. This image is not a mere exploration of sexuality, but an equation of the inhumane with a gratifying carnal experience. Perhaps the moment is there for shock value—it’s certainly not what we expect from the shy and nervous Susie, who aims to please others and reveres her teachers. It must be noted, however, that the witches use their hooks not only on the dancers, but on random, unlucky men. In one scene, a hidden Susie observes the mothers sexually humiliating naked detectives, mutilating their genitals with the hooks. Until this moment, we thought of the academy as a refuge from the horrors of the patriarchy, a place where women can explore their bodies, their independence, and their interpersonal relationships in a matriarchal setting, but by showing the witches needlessly sexually torturing men, Guadagnino reinforces the stereotype of the liberated woman as the dominator and destroyer of men. Susie’s weaponized masturbation, then, is a signal that she is something worse than a witch: she is a feminist. 

Guadagnino’s equation of the sexual with the satanic aligns him more so with Argento than fans of the former’s oeuvre may expect. Guadagnino is known for romantic dramas, some of which include turbulent plots, many of which are complete with indulgent, luxurious cinematography. No one captures the privilege of free, poolside time quite like Guadagnino. His Suspiria is, by contrast, full of quick, jarring jump-cuts meant to induce cinematic whiplash. The camera snaps from Johnson’s perspective to Swinton’s often to link the two women together as sister witches. Where Argento’s Suspiria features many shots narrowing in to the academy’s hallways, Guadagnino parrots this with many shots pulling out from the architecture. Both filmmakers feature scenes with high-angled cut away shots, implying that the characters are being watched by someone unseen and allowing the viewer to identify with this unknown observer. 

Guadagnino may be more soft spoken in his other films, but his ode to Argento runs rampant with images of violence against women’s bodies. The witches force Sara’s leg bone to protrude from her body; they starve Patricia until she appears ghoulish; they (or Susie) break and mangle Olga’s bones until she is a contorted mess, vomiting and urinating and begging for death. Guadagnino’s violence is made more visually compelling and disturbing by the development of special effects (in comparison, Argento’s murders look clownishly unrealistic now, even as his fire-engine red blood remains iconic) He also explores non-traditional gender in a somewhat problematic way, highlighting violence against an androgynous dancer’s body and casting the openly gender-fluid Swinton as not one, but two witches. His conflation of sex, violence, non-conventional gender and gender performance, as well as the occult, echoes Argento’s. 

Guadagnino’s twist ending places him among a long list of male filmmakers who have used women’s bodies as sacrifices for the state. By making Susie into Mater Suspiriorum, Guadagnino makes her the body politic. Susie rips open her chest and exposes her black, immortal heart. Her body, in all its lithe femininity, becomes the academy, the coven, the very perpetuation of witchcraft itself. She is a more powerful being than Argento’s naïve Suzy, but she sacrifices her own interests for the good of the state. Susie catches Sara’s body, finally free from the tortures of life, in a blood-stained pietà, as Guadagnino manipulates the bodies of his women to serve a misguided greater good. Thematically, it’s a scarcely different shot than that of Sophia Loren holding Eleonora Brown in her arms near the end of Vittorio De Sica’s La ciociara. Both mother and daughter are raped by a group of buffoonish French African soldiers (speaking gibberish, but that’s another essay); Cesira (Loren) cradles her daughter Rosetta’s ravaged body as we contemplate the sacrifice the two women have now become, their bodily autonomy violated through the collateral damage of war. Just as Brown’s character is the sacrificial virgin given to the modern state, so too is Goth’s Sara the lamb slaughtered for the advancement of the coven. 

Susie transcends her identity as a dancer, an American, even as a woman—her status now is simply witch. As Rosetta’s adolescence is erased through assault, she becomes not an Italian woman but Italy itself, raped by the different parties fighting for control of a discordant land. As women viewers, actors, and creators of film, we are accustomed to this substitution of our humanity. Our bodies are not our own, but are instead representative. Our dreams do not belong to us, but are instead symbolic. Though it is a richly layered meditation on the role that violence inevitably plays in liberation, Guadagnino’s Suspiria falters by sacrificing his well-crafted women into pawns. It is not enough to acknowledge that different forces of corruption exist alongside each other. When women still erode a community from the inside out—when the very eroding force is the body of a woman—it becomes apparent that Guadagnino has created the wrong kind of body horror.