The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Michael O’Sullivan’s review of “Suspiria,” click here.
I take notes during movies, usually thoughts and phrases, details on plot or character to make sure I get my facts straight, maybe a reminder to myself that I need to get allergy medicine. If I wind up with a lot of notes, it means I either hated or loved the movie. Less than a page usually means I loved it so much I just wanted to sit and watch it.
The notes I jotted down while watching “Suspiria” are one sentence long. That sentence is simply, “What the actual f---?” I mean it as a compliment.
“Suspiria” shares a title and not much else with its 1977 predecessor (director Luca Guadagnino says this is an “homage” to Dario Argento’s original, rather than a remake). Dancer Susie (Dakota Johnson) joins the Markos Dance Academy in 1977. The Berlin-based modern dance company is supervised by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, so you know stuff is going to get weird). A dancer accuses Blanc and the other women in charge of the company of being witches and soon after is trapped in a mirrored room and manipulated by an unseen force into a literally bone-crunching dance. Some of the company members have preternaturally powerful abilities, some have painfully vivid nightmares, and their house is decorated in a style that can only be called Early Demonic Creepy.
The entire movie is centered around women’s power: how we get it, what we do with it and the consequences that result. Dance companies have always been competitive — “Center Stage” taught us that, if nothing else — but “Suspiria” takes it to a new, bloodily violent, supernatural level. The “what the f---?”-ness is integral to the message of the movie. Things have to not make sense most of the time, because the movie takes place in a world we cannot imagine: one where a group of women has access to unrestricted power. And not only the supernatural type, but the kind that comes from occupying a women-only space. There are no men in the company, and the only significant male character is played by a woman in heavy disguise.
It’s not uncommon for a movie about women’s power to take place in some sort of supernatural space. That makes sense — a movie in which the women in charge are witches or demons or devils removes us from the actual world, where our power is curtailed. Placing female characters in a situation where the limits of female power don’t exist allows for a deeper examination of what it would be like if we were in charge in the real world. And things would be a lot easier for us, starting with the fact that we could eat bananas in public without feeling weird and we wouldn’t think we have to sneak our tampon through the office on the way to the bathroom to change it (and a lot fewer men would think “ewww” when they hear the word “tampon”).
People too often assume that a world with more women in power would automatically be a better, more peaceful one. Women’s strength, we’re told, comes from kindness and nurturing, and “Suspiria” shows that. Within the walls of the dance academy, women are cared for and femininity in its many forms is celebrated. But “Suspiria” is also about how women’s power can (and often does) come from blood and rage and violence — three things women know plenty about.
Feminine power in “Suspiria” is neither inherently cuddly and kind, nor a wrath-filled bringer of doom; it’s somehow both and neither at the same time. It’s always walking a line between nurture and anger — in short, it’s just like a woman.