Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dario Argento's Suspiria (1980)

 Fig. 1. Suspiria poster.

Suspiria is what going mad feels like – all semblance of reality is thrown by the wayside and left for the crows – it has a “cavalier disregard for making rational sense” (Jameson, 2011). Its use of psychedelic colour, an unrelenting soundtrack and bizarre lighting make it feel like an inescapable fever dream. The film uses stark, solid colour panels of light that serve less to illuminate as to silhouette scenes, and when they are used for illumination the bright colours make the figures and scenes seem inherently unnatural.

One can never tell what is ‘real’ within the context of the film and what is just production design. Is the ballet academy, in which the film is set, really lit so maddeningly, or is it just a figment of the protagonist’s – or the director’s – imagination? The plot is fairly simple and linear, but the film provides an atmosphere that makes it terrifying (and yet when the atmosphere passes so does the scariness, which makes it easier for a certain paranoid reviewer to sleep at night). While some ‘standard’ horror elements, such as mutilated corpses, allusions to cannibalism and relentless pursuers, are used, it is the atmosphere that makes the film truly unsettling, “a Goya print come to life relying solely on visual and audio mastery rather than plot or pacing.” (Breese, 2005).

Fig. 2. Interior long shot.

The film’s use of lighting may seem contradictory at first; the light-panels are incredibly bright, but are used to create deep black shadows. These shadows are then used to create a feeling of being surrounded, particularly obvious in the scene in which the guide dog of the academy’s former pianist is possessed and kills and eats his master. The two figures, alone, are spotlit, but completely surrounded by impenetrable shadow.

The fierce lighting creates stark silhouettes, as though the entire story is a shadow play. The improbable visuals make the film seem bizarre, and add to the sense that supernatural forces are at play. The silhouettes create an eerie stained glass effect, furthering the impression that what is happening is not natural. This, combined with the heavily geometric shapes of the film’s Art Deco aesthetic, make it abundantly clear that all is not well.

Fig. 3. Suzy mid-shot.

Notably, the bizarre visuals are limited to the academy and places where the academy has influence, e.g. the home of first murder victim. Outside the academy’s sphere, the visuals are naturalistic and sane, providing both a visual language for the witchcraft of the academy and a welcome reprieve for the viewer.

The film is rather blatant in its misogyny; women are hunted and mutilated for nothing more than the camera’s amusement, treated less like characters and more like fetish objects. This appears to be a directorial attitude, as Argento is reported by Empire as having said “A woman in peril is emotionally affecting. A man simply isn’t.” (Argento, 1997, quoted by Smith, unknown).

Illustration List
 Argento. D. (1980) Fig. 1. Suspiria poster. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Argento. D. (1980) Fig. 2. Interior long shot. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Argento. D. (1980) Fig. 3. Suzy mid-shot. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)

Jameson, R. (2011). Parallax View. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Breese, K. (2005). (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)
Smith, A. (unknown) Empire Magazine. (Accessed on: 19/01/2012)

(As an aside, I would like to point out that this film's tagline 'you willl never again feel safe in the dark' is entirely misleading. The darkness doesn't frighten me; it's when the lights suddenly become huge solid panels of primary colours that I'll start panicking.)

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