It’s been said that Suspiria is the closest anyone has come to producing a nightmare on film (with the possible exception of Eraserhead). In this post I will look at a few of the visual elements Argento uses to build the dreamworld that is Suspiria.
Nightmares are difficult express in words. Only writers of great talent, like Poe, were able to successfully and indelibly capture them in ways that would endure, influence, and spark the imaginations of artists yet to come. Nightmares are the perfect blend of elements that bombard your senses. An enormous amount of thought went into the creation of Suspiria's "visual vocabulary". The director needed a strong visual language that reinforced and amplified the telling of the story. Art Nouveau style fit his need perfectly. Everything from the interior of the school, the importance of an Iris (a flower which features prominently in Art Nouveau), the film's poster, wallpaper that takes a cue from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations, and the most seductive girl in the school who is dressed in classic Art Nouveau style clothing are present here to build the feeling Argento wanted.
“Dario has a very specific idea of what he wants to do and how he wants a movie to look. Dario has very unique style and a real commitment to that style.” — Jessica Harper (actress, Suspiria )
While it’s true that this style of art was experiencing a revival in the late 1970’s when this movie was made, it’s possible that there was deeper reason for his choice. Argento used this style of artwork because it perfectly captured the visual and mental images he wanted to create his nightmare. The essence of his female characters “are one” with the qualities of the women of Art Nouveau. They are taboo. They embody all that is sexy, beautiful, and mysterious in women. The film takes place in a dance academy that is more or less a “girls’ school.” This setting should bring Victorian images to mind. Yet, counter to what one might expect, these women are free and exploring the darker side of femininity. The story is a nightmare using the basic arch of a fairy tale —something almost every culture has in common — involving a secret coven of witches and the heroine that must face and defeat them. The feminine is so strong in this movie that, in fact, there are very few men in the entire film and they have only about fifteen minutes of screen time!
Critics have said that Argento is misogynistic,
but I don’t agree. If there is any male/female issue going on here it is men’s fear of the mysteries of women and the power that women hold over men with their sexuality.
In the center of this poster (left) is a
beautiful, glamorous woman. She
looks out at us with a teasing smile,
as if to say, “I am having a good
time and I don’t care what anyone
says.” Her hair and ribbons are free
flowing and echo the movement
of the long-stemmed flowers in
the four corners of the poster. Not
only is this woman voluptuous
and bare shouldered,Nover also
takes advantage of the sensuality
of the woman’s bare arm and adorns
it with a bracelet in the shape of
a serpent. As far back as ancient
Egypt, the serpent has long
been a symbol of the mysteries of
women. In the image below we see Olga, Susie's roommate in Suspiria, looking very much like our Absinthe poster girl. Also note the wall paper which looks as though it came directly from the art work of Aubry Beardsley.
Below, Aubrey Beardsley's Salome. In this print Salome, a woman whose beauty gives her the power to command whatever she wants, holds head of John the Baptist —decapitated at her request.
Critics have said that Argento is misogynistic, but I don’t agree. In the way that some critics have said that Eraserhead is about the age old “male fear of commitment”, I think if there is any male/female issue going on here, it is men’s fear of the mysteries of women and the power that women hold over men with their sexuality. This is more or less a fear unique to men because men do not hold the same kind of power over women – hence the use of the Art Nouveau female in the film. The image of the Art Nouveau woman was the first time in history sex was used to sell products.
Whether it was a conscience choice or not to use Art Nouveau to visually represent the power of the feminine in Suspiria, Argento had also been quietly working Art Nouveau into the scenery of his previous two films Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and his breakthrough hit, Profondo Rosso. Both films were, in part, shot in Torino, Italy. My husband is from Torino, and I have spent many summers there. Torino is close to the boarder of France and there is some lovely Art Nouveau architecture that can be spotted throughout the city. This makes Torino rather unique because I haven't seen Art Nouveau architecture in Italy outside Torino. Italy
has it's own name for Art Nouveau, Liberty Art.
Torino has quite a history regarding magic and the occult. This is not just something Argento exaggerated to promote his film. There are books on the subject, but the problem is they aren't available in English. I've been told that a few alchemists resided in Torino throughout the city's history. Indeed, Torino seems to be a melting pot of highly unusual buildings. It's easy to imagine how exposure to the city's history and Daria's family story could converge to inspire what would become Suspiria. Stay tuned for more in my next post!
Also, check out Davide Della Nina for Argento Tour locations in Torino.