Suspiria, at first glance, is a film out to flood the senses. Between near-constant music and a rich color palette, you’re not allowed much respite during the film. It’s totally enjoyable in that respect. Once you dig a little deeper, though, it’s easy to see where this one takes a turn for the fairy tales of yesteryear. Dario Argento is not out to give you a sanitized Disney extravaganza complete with songs and a profitable marketing strategy that encompasses everything from ice dancing to dolls. No sir: Agento presents a tale through plot convention and symbolism that mimics the folk tales told to children to both pass down values and reinforce socially acceptable behavior, effectively rendering Suspiria as a cautionary tale to question authority figures and engage in active battle against them.
|The Brothers Grimm would have been proud.|
The plot of this one is fairly standard for most fairy/folk tales: a young girl, out of her element, must battle authority figures that happen to be witches out to do her harm. The witch plot convention of fairy tales typically signifies the manipulation of the natural world to bend it to the will of the practitioner for ill-gotten gain, whether it’s eternal life, beauty or opulent wealth. Helena Markos, we learn, founded the dance academy after getting kicked out of multiple countries for being a creepy woman; as the climax of the film indicates, she’s still alive, which means that she’s been around for hundreds of years and is, as was suspected, an evil witch. As more of the students get closer to the truth, we get disappearances on the exterior and violent death being covered up on the interior. This one does follow the convention of three: we need Pat to disappear first, then Sarah before we can move on to the strongest of our heroines: Suzy (okay, it’s a stretch, as I have always found Suzy a bit whiny, but we’ll play along for now). As the third student that is about to fall prey to the evil witches, Suzy manages to triumph over the dark plans and makes her escape. By breaking it down, the story becomes highly recognizable: girl receives amazing opportunity and battles the evil witch presenting it to her to triumph in the name of good. This basic plotline becomes the same one that you can recognize in many different tales in multiple cultures.
Where Argento makes this interesting is his use of symbolism. He doesn’t make it mind-bendingly difficult in most instances, which manages to make the film more accessible in this respect. The real mastery comes from the increase in the difficulty of the symbolism as we progress throughout the film. The dance academy is placed in the deep, dark woods? Pretty easy to get; this is a bad place and it’s tucked away under the cover of the big, scary trees. Sarah wearing white and standing in the rain? Hi there, virginal heroine/sacrifice that requires rescue. As we move on, though, Argento gives us puzzles that are a bit more difficult. Did you catch the fact that this is a dance studio and not, say, a medical school? Dance figures prominently in multiple fairy tales, from plot convention (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) to punishment (the ending of “Snow White,” which is some pretty dark shit). It makes sense that it makes an appearance in this tale, because it both figures into the plot and functions as a form of punishment at one point – remember, Suzy had to dance to the point of passing out. In fact, that brings me to my next point: the fainting/sleeping spells – another common trope in fairy tales – work to signify the way that the other characters wish to keep the truth away from Suzy, making her loss of consciousness a loss of knowledge. The induced sleeping keeps her ignorant until she has the sense to stop drinking the wine; only then is she able to synthesize where the nighttime walking goes and discover the true nature of the dance academy’s authority. Extra points if you knew about the symbolism of the iris flower. For those of you that don’t know (and I know this because I like flower symbolism and have studied it – if you can tell me what a purple rose means without the use of Google, then we’re going to be friends): irises were flowers associated with the bringing of a young woman to the afterlife, of spiritual journey and hope. A blue iris in particular carries the meaning of faith in a good outcome. That the blue iris held the secret, according to Pat, meant that Suzy had to make a decision with an unknown outcome and hope for the best, knowing in her heart that while difficult, things were going to work out just fine in the end.
|Not the first time someone’s fallen ill while dancing in one of these stories.|
The two aspects – both plot and symbolism – merge together to form a theme that rails against authority. Suzy’s warned against falling in with the wrong crowd by Madame Blanc early on, then moved forcibly to the school, where she is placed on a strict diet. Authority wins for quite some time there. However, Suzy takes control of her actions, namely her diet, in order to become the active participant of the evil witch’s demise. Helena speaks to knowing that Suzy would come and try to kill her, giving the plot a type of prophesy dimension; like most prophecies in ancient Grecian tales, this one comes true despite the villain’s best meddling. Helena thus becomes both victim to her traditional cultural tales and a passive participant because she waited for Suzy to arrive/act. That Suzy stabs her in the throat is telling as well. It’s not the stabbing of the heart that Pat experienced, nor is it the razor wire and throat-slitting that Sarah experienced – Helena is stabbed emphatically through the throat, which acts to make the process of speech difficult (if not impossible) before eventually killing her. In essence, Suzy silences the evil witch for multiple purposes: so that another spell cannot be cast upon her, and to rob her of the ability to control/fuel the rest of the coven. As pointed out earlier, the coven needs their leader in order to survive, and so this act winds up destroying the basis of power for the ruling class. In the end, the dance academy burns and our heroine flees, the doors flinging open before her as though to usher her escape from harm. Her rebellion literally burns the murderous, oppressive regime to the ground in the name of the virginal innocent.
|The painted look of this is what makes it story like.|
What does this do in the end? The tale teaches us that we need to become active in our fight against an oppressive leader. We need to take control in order to survive; we must not simply obey. By taking this theme and crafting a fairy tale out of it makes Suspiria a modern-day fairy tale that teaches us through surreal atmosphere to completely distrust that which is around us. I don’t think I have to spell out just how relevant that is in our world today.