The 'Suspiria' Remake Recognises the Terrifying Power of Mothers
We spoke to 'Call Me By Your Name' director, Luca Guadagnino, about his reimagining of Dario Argento's cult classic.
Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc in 'Suspiria'
Patricia jolts around Dr Jozef Klemperer's room in a state of profound unrest. An outcast at the Markos Dance Academy, Patricia speaks with the psychiatrist frequently, and as the concerned scribbles in Dr Klemperer's notebook suggest, she has become increasingly disturbed under the watchful eye of Madame Blanc, the academy's matriarch.
"At the beginning, she gave me things," says Patricia of Madame Blanc. "Perfect balance. Perfect sleep. She wants to get inside of me. I can feel her."
Mid-ramble, Patricia – played by Chloe Grace Moretz – starts seeing eyes all over the room. That, so the scene seems to suggest, is the kind of control a mother can have over a daughter.
Instead of focusing on female sexuality – a central theme of Dario Argento's cult classic Suspiria (1977) – Luca Guadagnino's 2018 remake analyses the relationship between mothers and daughters. Little is familiar from Argento's film, bar the basic premise: a doe-eyed American, Susie Bannion, moves from America to a dance school in Berlin – which is secretly a front for a powerful witch coven – before Patricia, a current student, disappears or flees under mysterious circumstances.
None of the hyper-rich colours from Argento's original are there; Guadagnino's Berlin is grey and cold. The newer, much longer film has been called (not unfairly) "unfeeling", with Guadagnino focusing on distressingly gory scenes, making them as drawn out, textured and memorable as the peach in Call Me By Your Name.
Hovering over all this is that theme of matriarchy, and the power it can hold over a daughter.
"We're all children of mothers," explains Guadagnino from a hotel in Soho. "The mother and child relationship is important; it's so constitutional of who we are. Often, a female person is bound to a role and an identity. When we believe that mothers are good... there's much more complexity in the figure of the mother than what the entertainment and advertising industries want us to believe."
Guadagnino mentions the Great Mothers of human history, including the totemic Gods worshipped before patriarchal religions took hold. "There is always the Great Mother, and as we know there is [also] the Terrible Mother, and sometimes they are the same person, the same divinity," he adds. "That is something I'm interested in."
Certainly, inside Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), there is both Devil and God. She gives Susie – as she did Patricia, and presumably others previously – the power to weaponise their dancing. "Improvise freely," she tells Susie, whose movements spark deathly violence elsewhere.
With coven power transferred to Susie, it's impossible to say where her talent ends and the influence of the mothers begins. Mothers aren't supposed to have favourites, but deep down they often do – and Madame Blanc's is Susie from the moment of her audition. She soon casts her as the lead in the academy's upcoming show, Volk, which she has written herself.
There will no doubt be queer readings of the relationship between Madame Blanc and Susie – the sexual undercurrent is both palpable and difficult to pin down – undoubtedly helped along by the fact Blanc is played by a queer icon. While Guadagnino denies there is anything sexual between the pair, he does say, "Our sexuality informs every aspect of our lives through the conscious and the unconscious, so probably in seeking a daughter and a pupil, Madame Blanc may [desire] to explore a connection that goes into a deep level of interaction. But that sexuality is in the flesh and bone of any relationship as intense as Madame Blanc and Susie Bannion's is."
The relationship is intense – the pair stare unfalteringly into each other's eyes across a dinner table of oblivious witches and students; in Susie's bedroom, they hold hands as Susie comments on the strength of Blanc's feeling for her. Guadagnino adds: "I definitely believe that Madame Blanc is in love with Susie Bannion. Because, probably, Madame Blanc sees in Susie the possibility of saving her art [in the performance of Volk]."
An eternal truth is that mothers rarely avoid transferring their own failed ambitions and dreams onto their daughters. Simmering alongside that is the anxiety mothers occasionally have about being usurped by their daughters. Without revealing too much of the film's plot, there is only so much that Madame Blanc can teach Susie.
Despite Guadagnino's interest in the topic, Suspiria doesn't quite capture the co-existing Great and Terrible natures in mothers. But what it does remind us is that Terrible Mothers are everywhere: their influence toxic, murky and violent.