starring Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Bill Duke
screenplay by Panos Cosmatos & Aaron Stewart-Ahn
directed by Panos Cosmatos
starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz
screenplay by David Kajganich, based on the screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi
directed by Luca Guadagnino
by Walter Chaw Panos Cosmatos's Mandy is an old-fashioned acid trip of a movie--like if Head were directed by Rob Zombie. Indeed, the film it owes the most to is Zombie's exceptional mood piece Lords of Salem. It's already gained a fair deal of cult cachet (as well as a surprising/not-surprising box-office run), not the least for the best use of King Crimson since Children of Men (prog-rock is having a good 2018 between just this and Private Life), for the late Jóhann Jóhannsson's bliss-out score, and for an unhinged Nicolas Cage performance augmented by Viking berserker rage superpowers. Not for nothing is Mandy a period piece opening with Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, dissolving into a pixie-font title card setting the scene as "The Shadow Mountains" in the year of our lord, 1983. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is drawing "kinda like a jungle temple" in the remote home she shares with Red Miller (Cage). In bed, they talk about their favourite planets (hers: Jupiter, for the storms; his: Saturn, probably--no, wait, "Galactus") as Cosmatos bathes them in neon reds, then pans up into the Northern Lights arrayed above them. They canoe and it's so beautiful, the wave patterns and the blue, so blue it's almost lurid. Fire, then, a screen of it. All the elements will be represented here as metaphor for the completeness of their bond. It's not subtle. Now's not the time for subtlety.
Evil is Jeremiah (Linus Roache), the charismatic leader of a murderous cult who wants very much for Mandy to be for him what Mandy is to Red. He bases their connection on spotting her from a moving vehicle. Women know the truth of this character beat. Men see women and put them on pedestals, the better to worship, idealize, idolize--and the better for them to fall from such great heights once they consent to the attention. Men pursue women who fulfill the story they've written for themselves of their own virility and surpassing value. I wonder if any ever completely grow out of it. I wonder if the ones who do are just lying to themselves. To help, Jeremiah and his "family" summon demons, biker cenobites, using the "Horn of Abraxas," which sounds like the world's saddest elk call. It's not without meaning that the way to get the bad things to come is aligned, however tangentially, with a mating cry. Jeremiah's own mating cry is a vinyl single he recorded back in the day--a prancing folk ditty he presents to Mandy, his own eyes dilated, huge, telling her about how he was robbed of stardom and his fantasies of redemption and affirmation. All the while, Cosmatos plays with double-exposures until we get a literalization of how Jeremiah yearns to see himself through the eyes of his adoring sycophants. Mandy pinions exactly how fragile, how pathetic, the male ego is. How hungry and how pitiably sad. The Internet is an amazing thing. It is what it is now because of men's desire to jerk off in the privacy of their own basement.
Mandy says, "You made this song? It's about you?" Jeremiah, rapturous, nude before her, says that he did and it is. She laughs. Hard. It reminded me of Laraine Day's castrating laughter over Joel McCrea losing his hat in Foreign Correspondent, which is neither here nor there but underscores the idea that if there is something to be said about male fragility, it's likely that Hitchcock said it already. Her laughter is withering. Jeremiah can't get it up now for the rape. He screams at his followers to stop looking at him. There's a famous, recently exhumed Margaret Atwood quote about what a man fears the most (a woman laughing at him) vs. what a woman fears the most (that a man will kill her). Mandy has its issues, mostly a crowd-pleasing second half that has to do with Red's vengeance, but this moment--the woman laughing at her oppressor's vanity and literal smallness--encapsulates the spirit of this age. The entire Trump White Supremacist doctrine is the interplay of feeding its hunger overmuch, and not noticing often nor cruelly enough how funny and tiny these boys are with their secret handshakes, bullying bluster, and red caps made for children, flown in from the People's Republic of China. If Trump's 2020 hats are indeed green, I'd be interested to hear what 2 billion Chinese people have to say about its symbolism. Don't tell him. Do laugh, though.
I confess I wish the film had ended here, at its halfway mark, Mandy having castrated her captor, inciting him, Jeremiah, to set her on fire. It's what men do to women they think are possessed of too much power over their own, and by extension men's, sexuality--i.e., witches. The second half of Mandy is Red, knifed in the side and bound by barbed wire, resurrecting himself as a semi-literal Christ figure to bring pain down upon Mandy's kidnappers and executioners. Before the end, he'll develop the stigmata on his hands as well. The story of martyrdom and rebirth for a white man is the foundational story of this Judeo-Christian funhouse. It's okay if it's Jesus; it's not so okay when its redemption narrative is used for the current freakshow Republican party, rife as it is with unapologetic pedophiles, serial adulterers, and brazen hypocrite lecteurs. It works in Mandy, don't get me wrong, in the sense that who wouldn't want to watch Nicolas Cage as a warlock John Wick, forging mythical weapons and chugging booze in a tiger sweatshirt and filthy tightie-whities before getting medieval on some "Jesus freaks...weirdo, hippie types...bikers, gnarly psychos, and crazy evil"? His cause is righteous and his path is righteous. It's problematic to me that the ultimate example of Jeremiah's weakness is his offer to suck Red's dick, but chainsaws, amiright? The meat of Mandy is this first hour of a woman idolized by two men: one who has her consent to do so, the other who does not. One who is the pillow-talk type of masculine, the other who is the abusive mediocre white-guy twerp variety; while Mandy is there in the middle with her pulp paperbacks and her art, unknown and unknowable. If there's gristle to work over in the picture's resolution, it's this idea that the kind and gentle type, when pushed, can get really dangerous eventually. I love that Red calls one of the baddies a "vicious snowflake" before beating him to death with a pipe. The Nazis figured out once what social justice warriors could do when roused. They're coming around now to the idea that maybe they've pushed it too far again.
Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria has a scene at the very middle where a couple of witches run screaming at an old white man, a therapist (Lutz Ebersdorf), telling him that young women come to him with their truths only to have him tell them they're delusional. They're right. The main difference--of many differences--between Guadagnino's picture and Dario Argento's classic of the same name is, in fact, that the witches are right. An early glimpse of a Jung text announces that this updating will be a critical reworking of the source--one that's welcome and carried off so cogently, and with so much empathy, that it provides context for not just the Argento, not just the current zeitgeist, but arguably the eternal state of man. Like Mandy, there's a pivotal scene composed entirely around women's laughter. A man, in a trance, stands naked from the waist down while a coven of witches surround him, remove and mock his gun (a surrogate penis), and ridicule his flaccid member, pointing at it, lifting it, guffawing. Amused, the secret sharer, Suzy (Dakota Johnson), slips away with a smile on her face. She's seen something uncanny and it pleases her. Suzy is in Berlin at an exclusive dance academy run by stentorian Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), a prodigy taking the place of a presumed prodigy, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who tells Dr. Klemperer (Ebersdorf) at the start of the film that the witches who run the school will carve her up piecemeal and have her "cunt" for dinner. Patricia disappears--a source of some concern for her friend Olga (Elena Fokina), who makes the mistake of confronting Blanc at rehearsal. What happens to her is the first moment of a couple in Suspiria that I found difficult-unto-impossible to watch, and it's bound with Suzy's ascension in the eyes of her instructors. There's something here to untangle about their entanglement, something about how women are usually their own worst enemies. Imagine their power should they choose not to work at cross purposes.
Suzy makes a friend in Sara (Mia Goth), an effervescent counterpoint to Suzy's dour, literally Amish ingénue. Johnson reminds a great deal of her grandmother Tippi Hedren in the two films Hedren did for Hitchcock. She's physically perfect for the part of glassy marionette in a psychosexual melodrama, working out the intractable hardwiring of men and women and the species of violence that flowers between them. She's bad in the traditional sense, but glorious in a film that refers to her at one point as a vessel that is completely empty. For as languid as was Guadagnino's summer idyll Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria, although it shares with Call Me By Your Name some surprising wistfulness, is alive with whip-pans, zooms, and obsessive fondness for the play of mysterious light across reflective surfaces. Johnson's rigidity is a perspective point in the frame as her character is set in the middle of the frenetic choreography spinning around her. Unfolding during a frigid German winter, the picture has about it the chaotic nervousness of a heavy snow's Brownian motion. DP Sayombhu Mukedeeprom's camera is a heart attack serving a heightened reality. The fate of poor Olga is jangled, oddly angled, sharply edited, its body-horror transmitted from the contortions that dancers put their bodies through into the emotional savaging of a young woman by her mentors. Sara acts as Suzy's guide through her new boarding-school reality and one night, after a particularly bad nightmare, she acts as a sister, or a mother, in comforting her friend. As expected for a film predicated on Jung's cosmology, Suspiria is filthy with nightmares, all of suppurating wounds and bloody underwear left on a windowsill with worms squirming beside it, Suzy's mother (Malgorzata Bela) croaking from her deathbed in Ohio that Suzy is the "smear" she's left on the world. These sequences are packed with Jungian images of dark wells and the damp, of blood and piss, of mothers biological and adopted. When the dream images seep into the heightened reality of the film, it's hard to mark the liminal border that divides them.
Introduced in the original Suspiria, Argento's mythology concerns the so-called Three Mothers: Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness), and Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears). They function as elder gods, witches each with a base of power. His Suspiria, Inferno, and the unimaginatively-titled Mother of Tears: The Third Mother constitute a trilogy detailing their influence upon the world. I love that Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have found a melancholic definition for "sighs," this notion that we breathe a weary breath when we think back on what we've lost. Their Mater Suspiriorum, then, deals with regret. She says that she needs regret and guilt for sustenance, though she does not require it of every man. It's a surprisingly poignant moment in a film that's otherwise cold--a reminder that ferocity perhaps does not require inhumanity, nor should it immediately rule out sobriety.
The bulk of this Suspiria is a "let's put on a show" construct leading up to the performance of a dance Blanc designed in 1948 to commemorate the strength of German women during the war just-ended. When Suzy offers notes, Blanc rages that children of her generation have no idea how women have suffered to win the freedoms they enjoy there, in 1977. As a nod to Argento, the new film is a period piece set in the year of the original's release, and it unfolds against the "German Autumn," when terrorist organization Red Army Faction abducted former SS officer and then-current president of the German Employer's Association Hanns Martin Schleyer, which culminated forty-three days later in the hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181 from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt being stormed at an airfield in Mogadishu. The Red Army Faction, its insignia appearing throughout Suspiria, began as a West German student-protest organization. Their aim in this period was to purge Nazis from the highest levels of German government. It's topical, is what I'm saying. Suspiria 2018 positions itself as a cautionary shot across the bow of the entrenched patriarchy. The Bastille was stormed once; it can be stormed again.
Befitting a Jungian text, Suspiria's subtext is teeming with archetype, obsessed with the violent power of female relationships and rituals. A final ceremony finds not only horror in fertility (note a tiny appendage decorating the left arm of mysterious headmistress Madam Markos (Swinton, again)), but also a certain sanguine unity as Suzy embraces who she is outside the suffocating bonds of the religion she escaped. It reminds of The VVitch in the sense that a young woman's self-discovery is a thing of magnificent, convulsive strength, should it be allowed to find full flower; it's a celebration of women telling their truths, expressing themselves to a male-dominated system invested at every turn in silencing them. In a police station, Dr. Klemperer tells Agent Glockner (Mikael Olsson) that decades earlier, Glockner had tried to help Klemperer locate his wife, Anke (Jessica Harper), who vanished as she tried to flee Berlin ahead of the Nazis. "I have never forgotten the kindness," he says. Glockner has nothing to say. It's one moment of many that encapsulates the new Suspiria. These characters have drowned or are drowning in the past, are hobbled by their present, and are incapable of imagining a future. The picture says that we're doomed to work out our pain in endless cycles. (Someone wonders at some point why people are so eager to think the worst is behind us.) It has an extraordinary amount to say about the power of the powerless, the incandescent rage of the oppressed, and how occasionally all of that systemic inequity erodes through a thing as small as a vote before it erupts into something like a real, and really bloody, revolution. I hope someone's listening.