There’s an alert system that we feminists have in our heads when we’re watching anything from a simple soap commercial to a Netflix series or a freaky, full-length feature film. Certain signals will raise our spidey senses, alerting us that some form of sexism or objectification may be about to rear its ugly head, and in Luca Guadagnino’s haunting new film Suspiria, those signals are technically aplenty.
The dancers in the film's central company spend a great deal of time nude or nearly nude; the dances are full of gyration, some of which are performed against the floor; and the use of audible breaths, especially in the case of star Dakota Johnson, feels rather intimate. With those factors, and the fact that film and choreography were conceived of by men, the simple math in one’s brain could lead to the conclusion that these women’s bodies were being objectified and paraded on screen for the male gaze. However, when the film is observed as the sum of its parts, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. And as it turns out, Suspiria choreographer Damien Jalet worked extremely hard to ensure that. Spoilers ahead!
“The choreography of Suspiria is deeply bound to the narrative, historical context of the film [and each] character’s personality, but most of it has the function to convey the witchcraft of this group of women — it’s their most powerful tool, their secret language,” says Jalet via email. In the film, Johnson’s character Susie uses the choreography to contort and torture a fellow dancer, and later, Susie and the company’s choreography is used to attempt to forge a connection between Susie and the head witch, Mother Markos. “I wanted it to be cathartic in a way; raw, pagan, ancient. It’s angular, bony, and very grounded. The center, the womb, and the thoracic cage are the place most of the movements come from," he continues.
But, if audiences sensed a form of, um, bliss in these dances, they wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Jalet says that in addition to the power of the dance, he intended to give the unleashing of that power its own release. “In Suspiria, dance is a way also to unleash repressed energy, anger, frustration, but also [to seek] a certain state of ecstasy,” he says.
And that ecstasy, especially on the part of Susie, is one that comes from within — even if it is orgasmic in nature, with the breathing and heaving, it’s a sense of bliss that Susie gives herself. And considering that historically, depictions of female pleasure (especially self-administered pleasure) have been discouraged in film and television, this somewhat sexual reaction to her own power reads less as a treat for the male gaze, and more of an expression of what women can give themselves when they lean into their power.
But there is still the matter of nakedness — what about all that nudity? Well, Jalet has an explanation for that as well. “By establishing from the very beginning that the nudity in the film had clearly not the function to be arousing or ‘sexy’” — the scene in which Susie declares that dancing feels like “what it must be like to f*ck” somehow sucks every last bit of potential intercourse pantomiming out of the entire film — “it’s more a display of the body in its more essential, vulnerable aspect. If there’s a sexual energy passing through in the movements, it’s mixed with so many other feelings like rage, surrendering, sadness, resistance, etc.”
In fact, as Jalet explains, the main dance for "Volk" — the piece that Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc is famous for — was actually conceived of as a way to burst through the expectations of the male gaze. The dance originates from a piece called “Les Médusés” that Jalet did with three dancers in the Louvre museum in Paris, in a courtyard full of female sculptures that, he points out, were all created by men.
“The dance of ‘Les Médusés’ is inspired by all these sculptures, and dancers can only move (on a complex rhythm score) from one sculptural position to hit another, like being cursed to be able to move only to hit immobility again. In this dance, the performers move in order to break the spells that frame them, like also breaking a certain representation of how they should stand or pose from a male point of view,” he explains. “At the end, it’s a dance about [a] freedom quest and empowerment through collective (female) energy. I felt that was the right concept in the context of [Suspiria].”
Of course, it’s one thing to say that the dances aren’t meant to be arousing; it’s another thing to work to ensure they aren’t, which is exactly what Jalet did. “The choreography of ‘The Sabbath’ was developed in collaboration with the dancers and adapted for them to not feel uncomfortable to be [performing] nude,” he says, referring to the final dance in the film, in which the dancers perform completely nude in a ceremony surrounding Mother Markos and Susie. And, in addition to ensuring that the choreography was comfortable for the women on set, Jalet adds that director Guadagnino ensured that the crew was “limited to a minimum” during the shooting of these scenes to maintain that comfort.
Jalet also says he feels lucky to have worked on the film because it defies the usual “reductive” understandings of what dance can be — “the art of elegance, ethereal grace, and beauty.” But after working on Suspiria, Jalet feels he was able to show the other sides of the art form. “Dance is so often connected to pain, of the idea of pushing your own limits, but through it you seek mostly a certain kind of extasis. I love to find beauty in what can sometimes commonly be perceived ugly and vice versa,” he says, adding that this especially true of the scene in which Olga is tortured by Susie’s dance/witchcraft. “We tried to create something that was both thrilling and horrible, beautiful and disgusting. This duality is disturbing as I feel dance should be sometimes.”
But for all that work, audiences have largely been conditioned to see dance only as its been shown in most forms of media — as beautiful, sometimes sexual, art. Suspiria has certainly challenged that. “I’m glad Luca had the courage to give so much space to another kind of dance [besides] ballet or a more commercial style in a feature film. In Suspiria’s dances, we attempted with the dancers to not get stuck in forms or shapes, but to convey a vital, visceral energy, one that is able to break walls and that is liberating — a dance of salvation in a way.”
And while this film may be one of the toughest films of all time to get through, that reading might just be enough to convince at least a few of us into a second viewing.