When Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria hit theaters, several critics wished that the film had been directed by a woman. “The essence of Suspiria is feminine [...] and it likewise cries out for a female director,” Andrea Thompson wrote for The Chicago Reader. “My biggest peeve with Suspiria—aside from a cloying, mismatched score—is that, like the new Halloween, it’s written, directed, scored, edited and shot by men, though it almost solely stars and concerns women,” April Wolfe wrote in LA Weekly. “I know this isn’t cool and perhaps pointless to say, but I wish a woman had remade Suspiria,” Emily Yoshida wrote in the opening of her review for Vulture, elaborating that she wishes that a woman had been “empowered” to make a similarly ambitious film.
There’s a part of me that agrees with these critics. I don’t believe that women’s stories should be exclusively directed by women, though Suspiria isn’t exactly a realistic women’s story. When director Dario Argento released his original movie in 1977—about a young American terrorized by witches in a German ballet academy—he filmed it as a baroque, titillating slasher. While Argento wanted to serve his viewers technicolor, blood-spattered candy, Guadagnino gives his movie the ’70s backdrop of the Berlin Wall, haunted by ghosts of the Holocaust.
Guadagnino seems to have half-baked conceptions of what makes his movie a “feminist film,” a distinction he has advertised in the press. He seems to confuse depictions of women’s ability to inflict pain on others as a sign of their feminine, and apparently, feminist, power—a mistake many other male directors have made. Not to mention a grave mishandling and copying of Ana Mendieta’s art, in a movie about the power of women’s art, undercuts any claim that Suspiria is an empowering manifesto.
But despite its flaws, I loved Suspiria. I keep returning to the performances of the women in the movie; only three men appear in the entirety of Suspiria, two of whom are almost castrated for laughs by the Academy’s witches. Tilda Swinton is the heart of the movie, playing the academy’s Pina Bausch-ian lead instructor. And then there is Dakota Johnson, appealing as Susie Bannion, a waifish American girl who left her Mennonite past to become a dancer in Berlin. What Guadagnino’s Suspiria lacks in stylish, slasher deaths, it makes up for in surprisingly erotic, long exchanges between Swinton and Johnson, who suck the air out of theaters with their tension. And Johnson, whose biggest roles so far have drawn out her doe-eyed, breathy naïveté, weaponizes that reputation here [Spoiler Alert] by playing a wolf in final girl’s clothing; she tricks her teachers, and us as viewers, into accepting her as the movie’s frail, star bait, until she reveals herself to be the cruelest of the cast.
I don’t think people talk enough about Swinton or Johnson as makers of Suspiria’s world, despite the fact that the film revolves around their performances. Guadagnino is the director and so the movie is made by a man. Every microscopic part of the film, from the art direction, cinematography, costuming, script and more, is treated as little more than the production of one person, one genius—an extension of his singular vision. This is despite the fact that Guadagnino and Swinton, who have worked together on several films, have a deeply collaborative relationship: the two had been talking about remaking Argento’s film for 25 years. But in the case of a movie like Suspiria, and so many other movies directed by men but indebted to the contributions of lead actresses, I wonder why it’s sometimes so difficult to recognize women’s contributions onscreen as part of the collaborative effort of artmaking.
Not every male director is an auteur, and yet I feel like suddenly they’ve all earned the distinction simply through job title alone. Meanwhile, the deliberate choices lead actresses make—their agency within the project— are sidelined by those who’ve been taught to believe directors are all-controlling gods.
Conversations about women’s representation in film can be tedious and basic. There is a constant number-crunching of what women are hired for what roles, a record-keeping that, given the overwhelming amount of men who are hired in jobs like cinematography, editing, screenwriting, etc., are important but override what should be more important: that women get to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them, with the same opportunities that men receive.
When Jason Blum of Blumhouse, the production company behind horror films like Get Out and The Purge, told the press that he’s tried to hire female directors for projects but they’ve rejected them, I wasn’t surprised. Progress for women in film isn’t as simple as getting women behind the camera, by any means necessary.
But it’s easy to be energized for this call for more women-behind-the camera. When I get caught up in this emphasis on women’s artistry happening behind the camera, I feel myself unintentionally erasing the work women do in front of it. Or, the work of women who might not have a directing credit, like Swinton with Suspiria, but clearly had a vital role in shaping the film. “Tilda is a filmmaker, not just an actress,” Guadagnino said in an interview about the film. “It’s like working with someone who is actually contributing to the movie itself, not just adding her voice as a performer only, but adding her voice as a filmmaker.”
Reading about Suspiria, and the longing desire for the film to have been directed by a woman, I was reminded of another movie about women and violence that did not sit well with many audiences and critics. When Paul Verhoeven released his 2016 movie Elle starring Isabelle Huppert—a story about a woman who is raped by a masked intruder and then begins a sexual relationship with him—it was polarizing. Some critics called it “sick,” sadomasochistic, and spuriously transgressive. While many wanted to write the movie off as male director’s offensive approach to depicting rape, it was Huppert’s icy control of the film as its star that revealed an uncomfortable truth: You couldn’t write it off as a movie just made by a man; her contributions were blinding. “Her performance is a clear case of actress as auteur,” Miriam Bale wrote in her review of the film. “I have never seen an actor or actress add so much to the movie that was not in the script,” Verhoeven said of her performance.
It’s an enormous, collaborative effort to make a movie, but we’re primed and eager to award the one man with the directing credit sole recognition for his singular vision. It’s easy to forget that even Argento did not write his best movie alone; he wrote the original Suspiria with his ex-wife and best leading lady Daria Nicolodi, who was reportedly the one to first read the movie’s primary source material. We are so eager to assign a woman director to this remake, in turn forgetting that women were an essential part in creating the original. It is easy to erase women’s contributions, to frame them as muse rather than as maker, making the actresses a passive interpreter of a man’s vision. And the constant emphasis on hiring women behind the camera, as if it’s the only way for women’s voices, only underlines that assumption.