In the past year, two films with ostensibly identical plots — Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria — came out within just a few months of each other. Both follow artistic young women who, despite difficult relationships with their mothers, channel their underlying problems into art (acting and dancing, respectively).
After making their way into a tight-knit group of creatives, the protagonists quickly catch the eyes of the respected older women who teach them. As these relationships intensify, the mentor starts to cannibalize her mentees’ personhood — before the younger woman pushes back and overpowers her in a polarizing, tenuously hopeful finale.
The rise and fall of women’s identities in relation to their art isn’t a new focal point in film. But what feels unusual about Suspiria and Madeline’s Madeline is how female-centric everything about these arcs are. The men that exist in these stories are either inconsequential to the story outside of the female characters to which they’re linked, or ultimately helpless against the pull of the women in the central cast. Although they arguably exist outside of the largely male narratives that shape creative spaces, in both films, traditional maternal roles are turned upside down in both a biological and artistic sense. By forcing their young protagonists to reject the influences of both their mothers and mentors, the respective directors portray dissonance in womanhood through the art to which they’re giving life.
Madeline’s Madeline opens on one such facetious act of care, as an actress playing a nurse hangs hazily above the camera.
“What you are experiencing is just a metaphor,” she murmurs, soothing her would-be patient. “The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s.”
Madeline (Helena Howard), the film’s 16-year-old protagonist, takes this aphorism very seriously. As the young protegee of a prestigious physical theater troupe, she(Helena Howard) often exists in an unpredictable, frenzied in-between state of being. At home, her needy mother Regina (Miranda July) is often an unintentionally stifling reminder of her absent father and lingering mental health issues. But in inhabiting characters through dream-like fantasy sequences — particularly non-human figures like cats and sea turtles — she finds a space where, for perhaps the first time, she can truly excel.
Madeline is also eager to rehearse with her acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker), who creatively indulges her in a way that her mother does not. It comes as no surprise, then, that she is eager when her instructor makes her the new focus of the troupe’s next piece. The allusions to Madeline’s life start out innocently enough, before more time with Evangeline gives them a darker tint. The actress at the beginning of the film might promise that what’s happening is only a metaphor, but the protagonist’s peers acting out her dreams of harming her mother feels disturbingly real.
This transgression of Madeline’s experiences is made more insidious by Josephine Decker’s attempts to incorporate race into her explorations of authorship. Madeline is biracial, and both her mother and Evangeline are white women. When visiting her teacher’s home for the first time, she discovers that Evangeline, who is currently pregnant, has a black husband.
Decker creating this project as a white woman herself only complicates the idea that it’s often inappropriate for women to presume that they can tell one another’s stories. However, by giving Evangeline so much control over the theater group which she runs, the character’s appropriative actions towards another woman are criticized without negating women’s fights for creative control in general.
When Madeline reworks the troupe’s performance into a euphoric bit of mask work against her teacher’s wishes, she uses her artistic talent to break out of the narrative that her and her mother that Evangeline has constructed. Privileged women will undoubtedly continue to inappropriately interpret other women’s stories as she did within theater. But in that moment, Madeline’s reclamation of herself holds.
While Madeline’s Madeline creates a world out of its dizzying character interiority, Suspiria does the opposite. Rather than focusing on the phantasmagoric sensory horror of the 1977 original, Guadagnino’s 2018 reimagination is bleak and relentlessly layered. He expands on the three ancient entities, or “Mothers,” who were created for the first Suspiria, as well as the nature of the witchcraft that courses through their intricately choreographed dance academy.
In the world of the 2018 film, the coven has a detached, intrinsically linked relationship with the post-war Berlin around them. As beings who aren’t beholden to comparably short mortal lives or politics, the men in power hold little sway over them. All the same, Guadagnino — one of the several men who have exclusively adapted Suspiria — insists on weaving the evil acts of the witches with the historical human atrocities that elderly psychotherapist Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) is still processing.
While the lingering unrest of World War II causes suffering in the general German population, it’s the witch’s ritualistic dancing that has irreparable effects on the girls they train. On the surface, the fact that newcomer Susie incorporates herself seamlessly into the company despite her lack of formal training is progressive. Coming from a conservative Mennonite background where it’s considered sinful for women to use their bodies and make lives outside of procreation, the Markos company should represent a fresh start.
Yet in one of the first scenes where Susie dances for the company, her movements are bewitched to inflict pain upon a student who has decided to leave. As she bends her body in a violent contemporary performance, the other girl is forced to mirror her until she dies from grossly dismembered limbs. As she introduces a new piece to her young dancers, Madam Blanc (also Swinton) tells them that the dance is about rebirths and “the inevitable pull that they exert.”
This is fitting, given that the Mothers have recently decided to let their weak leader, Mother Markos, eventually inhabit Susie’s body. It would seem that she has escaped from her abusive mother and patriarchal upbringing into a matriarchy with much darker motives. As the film continues to cut abruptly back to Klemperer’s attempts to investigate the coven, his well-intentioned efforts appear futile next to their longstanding influence.
After two hours of inevitability, Suspiria rejects this generational, inescapable evil in a bloody, orgasmic confrontation. Susie seems poised to reject her old life and accept the malevolent control that the Markos Academy matriarchs have over her. Then, with the entire coven and an easily incapacitated Klemperer in attendance, she reveals that she is really the powerful Mother Suspirium. It’s unclear whether Susie and this being have always co-existed, but by the film’s climax, this hardly matters.
In sparing the women loyal to Madam Blanc — who, despite grooming Susie, came to care for her and express regret for the witches’ plan — she tentatively improves upon the dark legacy that the group have left behind. The dance academy and witches’ agendas will continue, but Susie has sworn off the idle cruelty with which the other matrons had become comfortable.
During one of the film’s final scenes, Susie visits Klemperer in the hospital, where he is recovering after the witches took him captive by posing as his presumed-dead wife. Sensing that his grief for her and the Holocaust that claimed her were a major part of his obsession with the coven, their new leader tells him the truth about the woman’s death — then she erases his memories.
“We need guilt and shame,” she whispers. “But not yours.” Like Klemperer’s experiences, larger institutions that often subvert and impact women still exist in these stories. But in the matriarchal artistic spaces forged by these female characters — and, however consciously, by the creators — these women’s creations and their corruptions are posited by no one but themselves.
by Abby Monteil
Abby Monteil (she/her) is an entertainment journalist based in Brooklyn, with writing in Insider, Film School Rejects, Film Daze, and more. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @abbyemonteil.
Categories: Feminist Criticism