music composer, also for film and theater

Suspiria – a symphony of breath and broken bones

Why is everybody so ready to think the worst is over?

Last Thursday I made the big mistake of going to watch Suspiria on my own, at a screening that ended at midnight. Coming out of the theater and walking to my bike has never been so difficult, I think. I don’t know if it was so scary like you would expect from a traditional “scary” Hollywood movie. I think it was worse: it was incredibly disturbing in a way I can’t really explain. All I can say is: go watch it. As for the present article, there are, indeed, some spoilers, so maybe watch the movie before reading this.

The movie is a sort of remake by Luca Guadagnino of the 1977 Dario Argento movie of the same title. The plot is kind of similar, although it takes place in Berlin rather than in Freiburg: an American girl called Susie (or Suzy) travels to Germany to study at a prestigious dance academy, which turns out to be run by witches. This is basically the premise of the two movies and, although they share the same kind of universe, they also diverge vastly in how they develop the subject. While Argento’s Suzy resists the influence of the witches, and ends up destroying the school, Guadagnino’s Susie turns out to the the fabled Mother Supiriorum herself, which gets revealed in a bloody dance scene that somehow reminded me of Pina Bausch. If you need yet another reason to watch the film, I’ll just mention one name: Tilda Swinton. Enough? I thought so.

The music of the film is made by Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead. I’m tempted to say I found it too “pop-ish” for the nature of the film, but now writing this I realize that it is precisely because of this that the music really works in the film. It makes it even more surreal and absurd. Rather than having the typical jumpscares and drones that plague basically most horror movies of recent years, Yorke’s soundtrack finds a way to be psychological in a completely different way. For example, the first time Susie dance’s the lead role of Madame Blanc’s dance piece Volk, which happens to be a spell used to punish (and maybe kill) one of the other dancers of te company, is accompanied by a 7/8 piano melody that will appear again and again in the movie in more dizzying and intense ways. In other moments, Yorke chooses the form which he has mastered in his career, the song, and does so beautifully. At the beginning of the movie, where we would expect a “scary” main title, we hear Yorke’s sighing voice and a simple accompaniment. This gives enough space for us to focus on the breathing sounds of Susie’s dying mother, and underlines the introduction of an essential visual motif in the film: hands and necks.

Talking about breath and breathing sounds, these are also a very important sound image in the film. One of the first things we hear in the film is the agonizingly difficult breathing of Susie’s mother. It will come back again and again, as a sort of ghost that will accompany Susie until she renounces her entirely towards the end of the movie. It is echoed by the difficult speech of ages-old Mother Markos, who will take over Susie’s young and beautiful body as her new vessel, but who is ultimately killed. The antithesis of this would be, of course, Susie’s intense breathing while she dances in her audition, which represents also her connection to Madame Blanc, the choreographer and witch who will become her protector. One of the climactic moments in the film is the dance scene of the performance of Volk, which is also a sort of ritual that fails in the end. It is punctuated by Yorke’s beautiful score (plus points for keeping the same music as in the rehearsal scene… not all composers are so considerate to the audience), and by the intense body and breathe sounds of the dancers, which contrasts with the old and not so agile witches that observe them from the sides.

The film is beautifully made, every detail is taken care of and done perfectly. I recommend it to everyone who likes a good disturbing movie before going to sleep. I watched it at Kriterion Theater in Amsterdam (Roetersstraat 170), a theater founded in 1945 to help student finance their studies. Maybe I will write something more about this place in the future.