Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

The Big Deal About Call Me by Your Name (2017) is That It Isn’t a Big Deal at All

While I wasn’t quite as knocked on my ass by the Academy Award-nominee Call Me by Your Name as Britnee seemed to be in her review, I do share in her appreciation of its merits as an intoxicating sensory experience. She writes, “I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of the music in the film was phenomenal.” Like with Luca Guadagnino’s previous directorial effort A Bigger Splash, this is a film that often compensates for its most glaring narrative shortcomings by simply shining as a gorgeous object, a portrait of life “somewhere in Northern Italy” that appeals to all five of the senses. I can’t recall a work of art that’s served as a better advertisement for an Italian life of leisure since the wonderfully-penned Gabrielle Hamilton memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter. I wasn’t 100% convinced by the passion shared between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) & Oliver (Armie Hammer) in this gorgeous backdrop the way Britnee was, but in a way, the soft, casual edge to their summertime romance is a huge part of the film’s appeal. Much like the ease of drinking fresh-squeezed juice, going for a swim on a whim, or plucking a book to read from the endless towers of them stacked about the open-windowed house, the same-sex romantic tryst at the center of Call Me by Your Name is a casual indulgence in an ancient pleasure. The only air of tragedy to their extended hook-up in this sun-drenched Eden is that it’s doomed to be temporary. That casual approach to same-sex romance & sensuality is extremely rare in cinema’s coming of age narratives about queer self-discovery, especially the ones set in the AIDS-paranoid, legally malevolent days of the early 1980s. It’s wonderful to see that the Big Deal about Call Me by Your Name isn’t made to be a big deal at all.

Something that caught my eye in Britnee’s review was that she made a point to note that Elio confesses his desire to (the older, more confident) Oliver “without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual.” This may be a result of the film’s less identity politics-obsessed 1983 setting, but it’s very much important to its overall appeal. I’ve been taken aback by a few critical takes on the film that posit Elio & Oliver as closeted homosexual men, when my experience with their shared arc was explicitly framed as a bisexual awakening. In a typical cinematic version of this story, these two young men would only be flirting & sleeping with women as a cover for their true passion, a dangerous romance that would inevitably end in tragedy (think of titles like Brokeback Mountain or When Boys Cry for context). Here I never question that the leads enjoy sleeping with women any more than I question them enjoying fresh fruit or afternoon swims. Their own connection may be more passionately intense & more of a social taboo (due to their significant age gap just as much as their shared gender), but that feels like it has more to do with their mutual compatibility than any external factors. A more convincing case could be made that Elio’s academic father (the consistently magnificent Michel Stuhlbarg) is a closeted homosexual man, but his hints about his own sexual orientation are left ambiguous at best. The most you can surmise from the fatherly advice carefully doled out throughout the film is that he believes what Elio & Oliver have is a rare, beautiful thing. Again, I don’t buy that the summertime fling the two leads share is as rare or as special as it’s ultimately framed to be, but I do find a lot to admire in this mode of subtle parental encouragement. In a more typical work, Elio’s parents would have found out about their tryst and made a huge dramatic gesture out of shutting it down. Instead, they quietly allow it to blossom & wither in its own time, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (which it kind of is).

The exchange that best solidifies the connection between the ease of Oliver & Elio’s romance and the general idyllic ease of a life on a Northern Italian villa is the one involving The Peach. Between his bored, restless indulgences in reading, drinking, swimming, sleeping, playing music, and having sex (what a life!), Elio often finds himself alone & sexually frustrated in the few private spaces he can find in his parents’ expansive summer home. In the most pivotal of these moments, he finds himself masturbating into a fresh peach, only to awake embarrassed when Oliver discovers him sleeping next to the evidence. To Elio’s horror, Oliver licks & threatens to eat the defiled, oozing peach. It’s a jarring exchange, but one that’s played as casually as the glazed petit four scene in Toni Erdmann, rather than for the shock value humor of similar scenes in Wetlands, Pink Flamingos, or American Pie. Elio is too embarrassed & ashamed to see it, but Oliver’s instinct to Eat The Peach in that scene is a natural extension of the indulgent, leisurely life they’ve been living all summer. Oliver is an overconfident, lumbering bro with a voracious appetite for Experience. The way he downs whole glasses of juice, dances with wild abandon, and smashes into even the daintiest of breakfasts is almost beastly, but it’s an appetite for life that makes the most out of the many sensory pleasures that enrich the Northern Italy countryside. Elio could use some of that unearned confidence himself, which is why it’s wonderful to see him indulge in more pleasures outside the shade of his bedroom as the film progresses. Eating The Peach is such a great summation of the careful, delicate hedonism of the summer the two young men share together over the course of the film. It’s kind of a shame the movie ultimately chickens out on fully depicting it (which I understand was not the case in the André Aciman source material).

Not everything in Call Me by Your Name worked for me. The Oscar-nominated Sufjan Stevens songs were more of a distraction than an enhancement. For all the film’s confident comfort in bisexuality, I found it a little odd that its onscreen nudity was all boobs and no peen. Less superficially, I never fully bought into the once-in-a-lifetime significance of the central romance, nor into Oliver’s transformation from “impolite, arrogant” bro to sensitive soul. Again, though, Guadagnino’s eye for gorgeous, natural imagery and all-encompassing sensory pleasures more than compensate for any narrative missteps (the intensely-lit Psychedelic Furs dance sequence was the most I’ve been excited for his upcoming Suspiria remake to date). Overall, this is a tenderly beautiful & surprisingly humorous delight. Speaking more culturally than personally, I believe the film’s greatest achievement is in not pushing to be more than that. It’s so encouraging to see between films like Call Me by Your Name & Princess Cyd that there are bisexual coming of age stories finally being told onscreen where the awakening & the romance are The Big Deal instead of the sexuality itself. There’s too many kinds of queer stories yet to be told onscreen for every major non-hetero release to be a coming-out misery narrative, as feels like has been the case for decades. Elio & Oliver believe their summertime romance to be a bombshell secret, a fear contextually informed by the film’s early 80s temporal setting, but nearly everyone around them perceives what they’re up to and does nothing to obstruct it with disapproval. The movie is ultimately casual & delicate in its depiction of an extended same sex hook-up, leaving only a young man’s broken heart behind in its inevitable conclusion (a wound that always heals with time, no matter how traumatic it feels in the moment). Elio & Oliver’s brief, passionate fling is presented as just one Northern Italy delight among many, no different than a good book, an afternoon swim, or a freshly squeezed glass of juice. The only way for that messaging to be clearer would be for Oliver to Eat The Peach and shrug at the camera, but I suppose that would have been making a Big Deal out of nothing at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Call Me by Your Name (based on the André Aciman novel of the same name), has earned loads of critical acclaim since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January and subsequent Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. After watching the film for the first time last night, I can truly say that it lives up to the hype. Here I am, an entire day later, still thinking about all the beautiful scenes shot on 35mm film. In addition to the movie’s vibrant beauty, its ability to pull the audience in emotionally is incredible. The entire theater was silent (minus a few sniffles for those heartbreaking moments) as everyone was wide-eyed and open-mouthed.  It felt like we were part of a virtual reality experiment.

The film is set in northern Italy during the summer of 1983. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) are spending time at their Italian villa. Elio’s father is a professor of archaeology and invites a handsome young research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), to stay with them during the summer. Elio is a seventeen year old with wit and talent beyond his age, and Oliver, while extremely intelligent, falls a little into the frat boy stereotype. At first, the two develop a friendship that involves intellectual conversation, daily swims in gorgeous Italian waters, and going out to local night clubs. Slowly, Elio begins to develop more of a sexual interest in Oliver. Without stating that he is homosexual or bisexual, he approaches Oliver and makes his desires known. Oliver, while hesitant at first, indulges in these desires as he feels the same for Elio. The two then engage in a very brief, yet passionate affair over the summer.

What I love the most about Call Me by Your Name is the film’s pace. It doesn’t move too fast or too slow; it’s just the right speed. There’s a gradual build-up before Elio and Oliver consummate their relationship, but the film doesn’t come to an abrupt end after this occurs. Instead, the audience is able to watch their relationship blossom into something beautiful. This kind of intimacy was responsible for getting me so emotionally invested in the film. Understanding Elio’s feelings before he approached Oliver and watching the passion between them grow more and more each time they were together was absolutely magical.

This is the first Guadagnino film I’ve seen, and I am immensely impressed by his ability to create an atmosphere that is so appealing to all the senses. I could taste the fresh apricot juice as it was flowing down Oliver’s throat. I could feel the warmth of the sun as it was beaming down on Elio’s face. Even the use of music in the film was phenomenal. From the memorable sequence of Oliver dancing in his high socks and Converse shoes to The Psychedelic Furs hit, “Love My Way” to Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” (nominated for Best Original Song) during Elio’s heartfelt moment of self-reflection, all of the film’s musical components add emphasis to these little moments.

While the performances from Chalamet and Hammer were above par, the most pivotal exchange in the film is Stuhlbarg’s monologue during a father/son discussion that goes beyond a father telling his son that he’s supportive of his sexuality. Chalamet showed up and showed out during this scene, and it had everyone in the theater in tears. In film, these conversations usually occur between mother and son because the father is usually too “macho” to understand anything about homosexuality. I was thrilled that this memorable moment was shared between Elio and his dad rather than Elio and his mom.

Call Me by Your Name is a coming of age love story that has left me with nothing but fond memories. I’m looking forward to watching this one a few more times once it’s released on DVD.

-Britnee Lombas

A Bigger Splash (2016)

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Chalk up A Bigger Splash as yet another fine example of one of my favorite dramatic subgenres: The Party Out of Bounds. A wealthy, white music industry couple get away from it all on a Sicilian island only to be rudely interrupted by a loud mouth producer/ex-lover and his hungry-for-trouble daughter. At first the couple tolerates the boisterous presence of their old friend but as he continually overstays his welcome the situation turns violently sour & then breaks in half. I love bottled up dramas when folks sickened by each other feel compelled (usually by a dangerous combination of lust & alcohol) to verbally duke it out in a cramped space instead of calling off the party & sending everyone on their not-so merry way. In A Bigger Splash‘s best moments it’s a wonderfully sadistic drama in this way, cramming four stage play-ready characters into a tight space & turning their cautious love for one another into murderous hatred.

Tilda Swinton stars as David Bowie’s less ethereal stand-in, an on-hiatus rock star recovering from a vocal surgery in romantic bliss with her recovering alcoholic husband. Their serene getaway is short-lived as the party’s crashed by the hopelessly crass, self-absorbed social terrorist music producer who haunts their past. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastic job as this obnoxious catalyst, turning the pathetic sadness of reliving your glory days into a mission statement & a battle cry. Dakota Johnson rounds out the cast as the producer’s hot-to-trot daughter, a literal siren on the rocks intending to seduce the blissful couple into annihilation from the other end. This is a huge step up for Johnson, who’s coming off a hot streak of stinkers like 50 Shades of Grey & How to Be Single to put in a well-measured performance that proves she can (emotively) duke it out with the best of them. Swinton is as consistently magnetic here as always, even with the power of speech mostly removed from her arsenal. It’s Fiennes who’s given free reign to chew scenery, though, and he does a wonderfully maniacal job driving the party as far out of bounds as he can, at times recalling Ben Kingsley’s dastardly crass performance in (the far superior work) Sexy Beast.

Unfortunately, A Bigger Splash has an occasional tendency to release steam from the dramatic pressure cooker in a way that relieves the central tension a little too easily. I’m thinking particularly of the flashbacks to Swinton’s & Fiennes’s glory days as a coked-up power couple on top of the rock & roll world. There’s too much escapism in those moments, distracting from the cramped discomfort of the the mounting resentment at hand even when they refer to past conflicts. That might be a personal bias, though, as it was the exact same problem I had with Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs film last year. I also thought showing Swinton performing her rock act in these flashbacks was a mistake. The film puts so much pressure on her voice/the music to be amazing that there’s no possible way for the reality to live up to it.

Still, director Luca Guadagnino does a great job here of turning a small cast drama into an intense visual display and a powder keg of lust & hurt feelings. Every body involved is a target for sexual leering. Unusually sharp focus of food, drink, and spinning records intensifies the sensual bacchanal of the central conflict. Up-close, direct to the camera line delivery recalls the discomfort of a great Bergman monologue. Even though he makes a few missteps in turning down the heat when it should be blasted, Gudagnino gleefully searches for the Devil in the details & employs an especially game Fiennes as a romance monster hellbent on tearing the whole world down so he can start from scratch (or dry hump the ruins). Although A Bigger Splash isn’t wholly successful, it is a remarkable experience that refuses to shy away from the violent urges of romantic jealousy & party-out-of-bounds societal unraveling. It’s impressive even when it stumbles and easily could’ve been much less memorable in less capable hands.

-Brandon Ledet