Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Last week, when writing about an image from Spike Lee's Malcolm X, I mentioned that Lee's films often look best when they're in motion. The same can't be said for the works of Italian director Dario Argento. Argento's films do look magnificent when they're moving -- his penchant for crane shots and moving cameras has become almost legendary -- but you can basically pause an Argento title at any moment and find an image worthy of hanging on a wall. The director's visual style trumps everything else in his films, which makes him a perfect candidate for an installment of Framed. And while Argento's body of work features no shortage of visually-striking movies, there really could only be one choice for this week's column: his supernatural chiller Suspiria.
The first film of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy is a dizzying, dazzling display of technical prowess -- a nightmare recreated on film. In the movie, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is an American ballet student studying abroad at an academy in Freiburg, Germany. Little does she know, the school is far more interested in black magic than dance -- it's run by one of the Three Mothers, powerful witches who secretly rule the world. Suzy discovers this institution is run by Mater Suspiriorum (in the form of Black Queen Helena Markos) and she must confront the evil woman if she is to have any hope of escaping with her life.
Suspiria came to typify Argento's cinema -- filled with lurid images, a pounding Goblin soundtrack, and featuring stories and performances that almost feel like an afterthought. The image is literally everything in Argento's universe -- and that's never truer than it is in this film. Suspiria is chock full of amazing shots -- including the opening double murder, Suzy's trip into Helena Markos' inner sanctum, Sara's untimely end in a room full of piano wire, and others too numerous to mention. Many of those scenes have been well documented, so I've chosen a slightly more obscure image to discuss. This isn't to say it's "better" than the others -- it's just different.
You can see the frame at the 9:56 mark of the Netflix Instant Watch version of Suspiria (and it should be noted that this is an edited version of the film -- boo Netflix!). This shot showcases many of the things that make Suspiria so incredible. In it, we see academy student Pat Hingle standing at a window in a friend's apartment. She's just fled the school during a driving rainstorm in the middle of the night -- and whatever she saw inside has upset her greatly.
Argento presents the shot with Pat framed in the window while the camera views her from outside. This isn't a particularly unique set-up, except that it puts the viewer in a position that he or she couldn't physically be in under normal circumstances. Argento takes this a step further by making it clear that this isn't just an audience point of view shot, but instead that it's subjective and belongs to another character. If we didn't already realize that supernatural things are afoot, we surely do now. The director makes heavy use of Murnau's "unchained camera" technique throughout Suspiria -- one of the film's numerous nods to German Expressionism. This particular instance with the camera sets the tone for what's to come -- one of countless moments where Argento will play with our expectations subtly through his choice of camera position and movement.
Another thing that really stands out in this still (and the rest of Suspiria) is the use of color. Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli -- with the generous assistance of production designer Giuseppe Bassan -- set out to create a "gothic fairytale" in this film, and the key element of their vision was a lurid color scheme featuring red, blue and green hues, deep blacks, and "contaminating" yellows. Tovoli and Argento have discussed at length how Suspiria's visual style was influenced by Disney's Snow White -- particularly the "Technicolor grandeur" of that film's color palette. It also owes more than a nod to Mario Bava's seminal giallo Blood and Black Lace -- which uses a similar lighting and color set-up, but in a more conventional murder mystery narrative.
Tovoli describes what he aimed to achieve with the colors in a February 2010 interview with American Cinematographer magazine:
"I decided to intensively utilize primary colors -- blue, green and red -- to identify the normal flow of life and then apply a complementary color, mainly yellow, to contaminate them. A [horror] film brings to the surface some of the ancestral fears we hide deep inside us, and Suspiria would not have had the same cathartic function if I had used the fullness and consolatory sweetness of the full color spectrum. To immediately make Suspiria a total abstraction from what we call 'everyday reality' I used the usually reassuring primary colors only in their purest essence, making them immediately, surprisingly violent and provocative. This brings the audience into the world of Suspiria."
We see this "abstraction from what we call everyday reality" in this frame. The overly saturated color scheme that has come to define Suspiria visually is present in this shot. We see the cold blues, the hot reds and an unusual purple all playing across the facade of the apartment building (which is an art deco monstrosity inside -- surprising it's so plain on the outside). The effect is as Tovoli states -- we're pulled away from the everyday and placed in this alternate reality -- a reality where someone peering in a second or third story window is not only plausible, but expected. I've also always found it interesting that the linen hanging on the clothesline outside the apartment window was black – not only because it provides a certain contrast to the garish tones around it, but because it looks almost like a funeral shroud wreathing Pat's figure.
Finally, we see one last nod to German Expressionism in Suspiria's architecture. The apartment building and the dance academy are prime examples of the Expressionistic tendency to design sets that mirror the inner lives of the characters who inhabit them. This particular shot isn't as interesting as either of those locales, but you can see a hint of what the building's like in the strange wall designs behind her. The symmetry of the interior of the building is mimicked in the patterns on the roof and the two panes of the window. The colors and the design seem to give us an insight into Pat's state of mind. She may be orderly and rational under normal circumstances (we don't know for sure because she's a peripheral character), but the gels that color the building seem to show us how her internal landscape has become muddled. Again, while this shot isn't as intriguing as many of the others in Suspiria from an architectural standpoint, it does at least highlight a few of the things that turn up time and again in others.
Honestly, this is merely the tip of the blade when it comes to Suspiria. Argento's film is so well-made and expertly conceived that I could write thousands of words on why it's rightfully regarded as not only one of the greatest Italian horror films ever made, but a visual masterpiece that cuts across genre lines. If you've seen it, you no doubt know what I mean. If you haven't, I hope this column might inspire you to check it out.