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Bechdel Test Canon Double Feature: Suspiria and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Today is Black Swan's release date in Austin, where I claim residence. It's one of the few films in recent memory I anticipate seeing despite being predisposed to hate it, given my checkered track record with director Darren Aronofsky. I have reservations about how Aronofsky will employ his portentous style to a movie that trundles out sexist tropes like the Madonna/whore binary and the evil mother. Nonetheless, I'm curious if the film will bring new perspectives on ballet's strictly regulated codes of idealized white femininity by comparing professional dance to Hollywood's accepted practices of sexism, ageism, and misogynistic beauty regimens.

Natalie Portman Black Swan

I also wonder how embodiment issues will be refracted through Aronofsky's bravura filmmaking as he incorporates camp and body horror into the story of an emotionally stunted dancer cast in the daunting dual role of Odette and Odile in Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Clearly Aronofsky has interest in paralleling not only ballet with acting, but idealized femininity with the purported grace of an animal after which musician Michael Gira named his first band because their regal carriage and temperamental disposition mirrored the kind of sound he hoped to create. Of course, the role of the tormented ballerina is one of pop culture's perennial figures, from Vicky Page in The Red Shoes to Center Stage's Maureen Cummings to the classically-trained strippers in the video for Hole's "Violet" to every student at Suspiria's fictional Munich academy. As such, many people have already compared Black Swan to Italian director Dario Argento's 1977 horror film about American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who discovers that her conservatory is really a witch coven. Rumor that Natalie Portman would star in a remake invites comparison. Formal similarities to a variety of films, including Brain De Palma's psychological thriller Sisters, encourages debate.

Suspiria's Suzy Bannion

However, Suspiria isn't especially concerned with ballet. Argento and co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi view the cloistered life of a prima ballerina as a microcosm for societal scrutiny and regulation of the bodies and actions of young women. The same could be said of Australian filmmaker Peter Weir's investment with boarding school in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was released two years prior and based on Joan Lindsay's novel about the disappearance of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls and their teacher during an outing.

Picnic at Hanging Rock's Miranda

Both films differ somewhat in their languid cinematic aesthetic. Technicolor maximizes Suspiria's jewel-toned color scheme, making its orgiastic blood-shed all the more vivid. Picnic at Hanging Rock's pastels are washed out by sunlight, which suggests where Sofia Coppola may have drawn inspiration for The Virgin Suicides and makes the story's irresolution eerier. However, both films are invested in linking femininity to mythical and metaphysical phenomena. The films' respective wardrobe designs were also influential on hipster icons like the Mulleavy sisters, who founded Rodarte and served as Black Swan's costume designers before launching their ill-advised Juarez-inspired MAC collection. They seem to be responding to the girls' ability to unnerve while impeccably dressed in matching tutus or crinoline. Finally, the films' use of music is especially effective. Picnic uses pan pipe music and a classical score to convey Victoriana's feigned civility, which denied its brutish colonial imperatives by keeping the spiritual world at bay. Suspiria features the work of prog band Goblin (whose members frequently collaborated with Argento) and foregrounds clangorous percussion and disembodied screaming to ramp up the terror.

But what makes both films especially effective is how they use horror to make a point about educational institutions' enforcement of gender hegemony to interrogate conventional femininity. Bannion and her classmates are put under various spells and systematically killed by the academy's staff, which is primarily peopled with older women played by veteran actresses Joan Bennett and Alida Valli. Only Bannion survives, fleeing the school at the end of the film as the building goes up in flames. The English girls' school golden girl Miranda (Anne-Louis Lambert) attends in Picnic never recovers from her escape, especially headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) and friend Sara (Margaret Nelson), a working-class girl who harbors unrequited romantic feelings for her displaced classmate. Public scrutiny and internal pressures prompt them to kill themselves. While these are destructive conclusions arrived upon by male directors, the motivations speak volumes for how women and girls interrelate and requires feminist scrutiny.

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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

geez

This review or analysis was way too academic.

i liked it. it was

i liked it. it was interesting and well written.

just a suggestion to the author: if you are predisposed to hate a movie i would advise against reading anything about it before watching it, especially if the article reinforces your preconceived notions about the film. you won't be able to see anything except for what you've already thought and read.

i think it's better to go see a movie with an open mind instead of expecting it to either challenge or confirm your expectations. if you already know what you'll think about a film, why go see it at all?

Hm.

To the first Anonymous: If this review was too "academic" for your tastes, say that. Don't dismiss the review as a whole or imply that it couldn't be interesting for others. I can only speak for myself, but as the editor here I read the piece carefully and thought it was great. It motivated me to want to see all three of the films mentioned, and part of the reason for that was the care and knowledge that Alyx brought to it.

To the second Anonymous: I think it's fine to say that you're predisposed to hate something based on your previous experiences with the director. That doesn't mean Alyx won't have an open mind going into the film, or that she should avoid all reviews or articles on the subject. Besides, Black Swan has been getting so much freaking media attention it would be pretty hard to avoid seeing something about it.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

To the first Anonymous: your

To the first Anonymous: your comment made me chuckle. I get that sometimes. I do come from the academy, so I can get a bit stuffy. Also, one of my all-time favorite critics is Ann Powers, who is often told that she's too academic. I guess it's just who I am and how I respond to all this stuff. Thanks for reading anyway, and be thankful I took out all the Freud that could've been in here if someone else wrote this post. A lot of folks love throwing in psychoanalysis when they talk about horror, especially feminist film scholars. I'm not one of those people, though some of my dearest friends are.

To the second Anonymous: I'm actually pretty stoked about seeing Black Swan and think I can go in being somewhat impartial. This wasn't so when (500) Days of Summer came out, the last movie I anticipated seeing that I knew I wasn't going to enjoy and flayed on my own blog. All the stuff I've read and heard, many of which I linked in this post, make me really excited to see Black Swan. Goth couture tutus? Smashed mirrors? Bloody toes? A reworked Tchaikovsky score? A cameo from a certain beloved Gen-X ingenue? I'm pretty into it. Even when I saw the trailer, which kind of looked like a weird made-for-cable campfest, I was like "Oh Darren, I'm not sure if this looks terrible or terribly awesome but I will see you at the theater!" I only mentioned that I'm predisposed to hate Black Swan based on my negative reactions to other Aronofsky movies. This is particularly true with Requiem for a Dream which I really, really hated and The Wrestler, which I think is a meh movie with two good performances, one of which is overrated (I'm not talking about Marissa Tomei). Haven't seen The Fountain, so I can't comment on that one.

As counterexamples, I thought I was going to hate 24-Hour Party People because it looked so smug but it's one of my favorite movies of all time. The same goes for Walk Hard, which I wrote off as another Apatow bromance but ended up being a good takedown of rock biopics. I thought I was going to love The Runaways but it played into every rock biopic cliche. You never really know what you're going to get with a movie sometimes, and that's part of the fun.

To Kelsey: Thanks! I really try to be sensitive to a variety of things when I write these posts while still keeping them accessible. BTW, Suspiria was pretty awesome but make sure you've got all the lights on in your house and a friend nearby. Picnic was a little slow-going for me during the actual screening, but has haunted me since my second viewing. Maybe also have a friend nearby for that one, so you don't feel like you're the only person on the planet.

Alyx Vesey

I think "academic" is a nice

I think "academic" is a nice way of saying stilted. It was really a workout to extract content, while the writing style in your comment above is more expressive and dense *and* infinitely more readable.

Stilted?

I thought this piece was very readable. To be fair, I have read a lot of Alyx's work and am familiar with two of the three texts discussed, but nevertheless, I'm failing to understand the criticism.

I think we all just have

I think we all just have differing opinions about what good writing is. There's a lot to unpack in all of these movies and I'm trying to bring in as many issues and raise as many points as I can. If density is an issue, than it's really more of a matter of just how much is going on both inside the texts and outside factors that come to bear on them. If "stiffness" is an issue, than I can only add that I kind of talk this way too (well, you know, interlaced with swear words and "ya'll"). I appreciate Caitlin's support and think we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Alyx Vesey

Love the Bechdel series

First, let me just say that I love this series you've been doing. As a filmmaker/lover of all things cinema and feminist, it is just great to see this type of conversation going on. I often crave a feminist discussion of films, both past and present, but have trouble finding people who want to talk about film, let alone examine it with a critical feminist eye. I also appreciate the tone of these entries. I feel like it is relaxed and open. Something I love about this magazine is the writers ability to remain open to other ideas. It's a place to think things through and I feel like you are asking for responses and debate as opposed to being the final word, authority, opinion, on a topic.

Secondly, Picnic and Suspiria have been two of my favorite films ever since movies started taking over my life. I too have had reservations about Black Swan and tend to make judgments based on many things other than actually watching the film. It's just the way I am and it's fun but I will see this film, especially now that you have shown me the thematic similarities to movies that I love.

xoxo

Ooh, I wonder if I've heard

Ooh, I wonder if I've heard of any of your films or where I could get a hold of them, Erin! Would love to watch 'em.

Also, it makes me feel good when you say that you feel like the series is relaxed and open -- I'm incorporating as many kinds of movies as I can and presenting them in a way like "hey, this is cool" or "I didn't know about this" or "it didn't work because ______, but I still think we should talk about it."

Suspiria was the first Argento movie I saw and it was so much fun (you know, and completely terrifying). I like Picnic the more I think about it and am excited to see Black Swan.

Thanks for reading! And keep making movies.

Alyx Vesey

So...

...the first comment would've been fine and would not have contained all the implications you mention had the commenter simply said "for my tastes" at the end? I think it's implied that such a statement is about the person's tastes. No one can speak for everyone, and I don't think that when sharing an opinion someone has to state outright "IMO". You know, IMO anyway.

I enjoyed both the post's

I enjoyed both the post's analysis - the drawing together of the two surprisingly relative comparative films and the moving analysis away from the usual Argento gore-focus - and the fact that you gave a Centre Stage reference.

Faye, Center Stage is one of

Faye, Center Stage is one of my all-time faves. It's my go-to lazy Sunday movie. If this series were longer, it'd have to get its own entry. "I'm the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy -- who the hell are you? Nobody!"? "As a boyfriend, you kind of suck"? Zoe Saldana putting out a cigarette en pointe? Jamiroquai? Motorcycles in ballet? Brillz.

Alyx Vesey

Great article, Alyx! Both

Great article, Alyx! Both films have been on my list of movies to watch for the longest time -- and now I know what I'm watching next!