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.
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.
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.
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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