Say what you will about Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (and if you see it, you’ll undoubtedly have a lot to say about the provocative film)—even its detractors would agree that the movie is audacious. It rips out the skeleton of Dario Argento’s 1977 witch flick of the same name and piles on new narratives about Nazism, patriarchy, collusion, and artistic perfection. It pounds into your skull, the brutality of dance training, as it follows the enrollment of Susie (Dakota Johnson) in a Berlin-based dance school headed by the demanding Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, who plays two additional roles). Perhaps most boldly, it almost completely washes away Argento’s affinity for lighting scenes with bold gels in primary colors—Guadagnino’s Suspiria is desaturated to the point of being severe.
If Guadanigno’s Suspiria is night to Argento’s day, it also plays cold to the warmth of the director’s previous movie, Call Me by Your Name. Last week, in the downtown New York office of the publicity company ID, Guadagnino told Jezebel that the tone on the set of his movie was “midway between jolliness and fun and tiredness and discomfort.” For one thing, shooting in an abandoned building during a German winter was cold.
As we discussed Guadagnino’s film and his previous comments about its feminism, the animated director never stopped moving. He rolled his chair back, forth, and diagonally a few feet on the conference room’s floor. He straightened my recorder so that it was perpendicular with the edge of the table, and moved it again, askew. At one point for emphasis, he gestured toward my heart with two hands and retracted them back to him, as if he were drawing something out of me. While answering one question, he interrupted himself to ask if I wanted some bottled water that was sitting nearby, and then poured some into a glass for me, which I thought was very polite.
He was passionate and engaged, though he refused to speak in any detail about the lawsuit filed by Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s estate that alleged copyright infringement for images used in an early, since-yanked Suspiria trailer that bore serious resemblance to some created by Mendieta. (This week, Amazon, which is releasing Suspiria, settled that lawsuit.) Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.
JEZEBEL: I felt like I dreamt this movie.
LUCA GUADAGNINO: That’s good. Every movie’s a dream.
I thought the dream sequences were particularly effective.
I think that one of the most difficult things to achieve in a movie is a dream because the movie is already a dream. What is the balance? What is the imagery? Do we give the clue to an audience to understand through the dream the unconsciousness of the character, or as the character itself we have a subjective experience that we have to decipher? And is it realistic or not realistic? Is it made out of brief imagery or one thing? It’s a very difficult thing. I think of the dream sequences in An American Werewolf in London, which are so good. In this case, I think we really wanted to be very immersed in the femininity of this movie. This is a movie about the world of females. I really worked a lot with people like Teresa MccRee and I had also a very great conversation with Lea Vergine. They’re two important art critics. Both have explored the world in connection to body art and feminist art. That was our point of departure.
It seems to me that remaking Suspiria, which has such a legacy behind it, must be in some ways more difficult than creating something from the ground. Was that the case?
It was challenging for people who knew I was doing it, probably. It’s not really linked to the fact that I was doing a remake of a very important masterpiece of the genre, it was challenging because every movie you make, it’s very important to be sure you have the time, the means, and the focus to make something precise. In this case, you have to do that not only in terms of filmmaking, but you also have very complicated set pieces that need to work out properly and not shallowly. I am very wary of CGI. It was a challenge to make sure we weren’t falling in the pit of shallow CGI filmmaking.
Speaking of the horror genre overall, did you feel a responsibility to scare people?
It depends. What does it mean to scare people? If I do, “Boo!” to you now, maybe you can have a little moment, and then what’s left? I think it’s cheating. Jump scares are cheating. The cinema of the ’70s that I admire has always had a very good shock value, which I love somehow. Yet suspense is more important, in my opinion, as a device to create anxiety in the audience. I don’t know if I have a responsibility to make people scared, but I do believe as a filmmaker doing a horror movie, I am committing to make sure that it goes under your skin, deep down.
Some of the intensity here comes from the storytelling. It feels like a narrative assault, there are so many threads you’re working with.
I like that, in general: a pervasive assault to the senses.
You mentioned femininity. What motivated you to work in that realm here?
Well, the movie is about witches. And as we know, historically, witches are witches because people decide they are witches. And who are the witches? Usually a group of women that decides to be together, and a certain patriarchal voice doesn’t like that. They don’t like their independence. I think it was interesting that by making a movie about witches, we were able to summon the power of being a witch and not the indictment of being such, and really separate ourselves from the male gaze. Being a man. [He laughs, literally like: “Ha ha.”]
Do you see any irony in making a movie that is explicitly anti-patriarchy yet directed and written by men?
I can talk for myself and I can definitely talk for [screenwriter David Kajganich], and I can tell you that we both are men that honestly do not believe in archetypical, patriarchal, [macho] voice, for many reasons. It doesn’t necessarily hinge on the fact that we are both homosexuals. I don’t think a homosexual is necessarily safe from not being a misogynist or patriarchal. It’s just that for both, and from different grounds, we are really not speaking that kind of language.
Is there a way you can guarantee that? I think a lot of men feel that way, and women don’t always agree.
I think a guarantee as you say is something that has to do with a contract. I don’t think human beings can be bound to a contract. I think that’s a very Anglo-Saxon way of putting it and it’s a sort of desperate desire for the impossibility of controlling identity. I do believe that I have a very earned interest in welcoming, not imposing, listening, not monologuing, even if I’m monologuing now. And yet... maybe. I hope not. I am very open to my femininity. I have no problem about that. I really don’t have any problems about expressing my own femininity.
Is all that to say that your set is collaborative and not authoritarian in the traditional director-as-dictator way?
My anxieties and my insecurities do not come about [from] my place in the world. I’m fairly confident. My confidence is such that I just do not have the problem of ego. Usually, when people have that kind of attitude that you describe, it’s because they have weaknesses and they need to impose their own ego onto other people, and that’s sad for them.
Cinema is a very collaborative effort. The authorship of a movie is an ambiguous thing. On the one hand, in order to do the movie, you have to work in a very collaborative way and endorse and empower the people that are working with you to contribute actively, deeply to the making of the film. And then on the other hand, I think as Kubrick said, the most important person on a movie set is the movie. But the person who’s closest to the movie, who has the possibility to take it off in the world, is the filmmaker, the director, maybe. But only if the director allows himself or herself to be permeated by the world of other people who collaborate with him. Not to impose. And it’s a long shot. It’s something that goes into the long run. You end your life and you can see retrospectively.
Let’s say we take the world of John Cassavetes, and we watch it retrospectively. Being a filmmaker who has always been interested in sourcing out his characters from the way in which he was dealing with his actors and giving them the [freedom] of improvisation. But if you see the body of work of Mr. Casavettes, you see that, the beauty of that, but you also see the consistency of a vision that is his. It’s a beautiful thing.
You said your Suspiria is a “great feminist film” in an interview with the Tracking Board.
I said “great?”
Yes. That’s how they quoted you.
I didn’t want to give a judgment on my own movie. I didn’t mean “great” in terms of value. Maybe I wanted to say that it was a... the size of a statement in feminism. But I am a bit embarrassed that I said “great.”
Could you talk about the feminism, as you see it?
Well, you can talk about it. You saw the movie. I’m more interested in hearing what you have to say.
Well, I think it was ambiguous.
I understand you’ve complicated [the depictions] beyond just saying, “Women are good and strong”...
There is a great book called The Great Mother by Erich Neumann, a great anthropologist that tracks the story of the goddess in cultures and how that has been wiped out in order to put patriarchy in the center. If we talk about the Great Mother, we cannot deny the terrible mother. True feminism is something that doesn’t shy away from the complexity of the female identity. It’s not about sugarcoating and saying, “They’re good; men are bad.” That’s ridiculous. I think that’s victimization. I think women are complex creatures who carry with them a difference [from] men in a generative power, and I feel that this movie is, in fact, about the relationship between women, mostly. And even the man is created by a woman. I think that if we approach that, you can’t do something that is just a one-dimensional, vanilla idea of the power of women.
Do you have any response to the estate of Ana Mendieta’s allegations that you appropriated her work?
None at all?
The reason I ask is I think it complicates the feminist argument for some people.
I think time will have an answer to that.
This movie has elicited strong reactions, good and bad, and even some of the good reviews allow that it’s sure to be divisive. Do you like being divisive?
I don’t think of myself either retrospectively or as a sort of... that’s marketing. “Let’s be divisive.” I do what I feel I’m good at doing.
Do you think about the audience and how they’ll respond?
I think a movie is completed in the eyes of who sees the film. Does this mean I am thinking of the movie as a generic product that has to go and please a vast audience? No. Am I thinking with my movies that I want to provoke and engage an audience? Yes. Do I want a very large audience? Of course.
What did you think when Tilda came out as the actor who plays Josef Klemperer?
She said she plays Lutz Ebersdorf, the actor who plays Klemperer.
Right. It seemed like there was an attempt at a ruse, with the Lutz Ebersdorf IMDb page, and then she came out and confirmed what many people suspected. I wonder how you experienced that.
I didn’t experience it, I was part of the conversation about it. The conversation was that when I got the beautiful script that Kajganich wrote, I wanted Tilda to be the three characters in the movie that in a way represent the universal idea of psyche from Freud: the id, the ego, and the superego. She was game immediately. Then she felt that it was good to be only Madame Blanc, in terms of what the people knew about her. I was game for that as well. But then during the filming, some mole in the crew may have said something to somebody and paparazzi came and took a picture of her in makeup, exposing the possibility that man was her. This increased and increased and increased in such a way that it became kind of redundant not to address it. The most important thing is Josef Klemperer is, for me, the hook upon which you hang yourself to go through the film, only to basically lose ground, as Klemperer does.