Ballet movie showdown: ‘Suspiria’ vs. ‘Black Swan’

The pyschedelic peacock was one of my favorite parts of "Suspiria" ... no, I'm not kidding.

The psychedelic peacock was one of my favorite parts of “Suspiria” … no, I’m not kidding.

Suspiria, 1977

I have a lot less respect for my fellow fanboys now. Suspiria, the allegedly classic horror film from Italian horror master Dario Argento, is awful. Calling the writing sophomoric raises it a couple of grade levels from where it really is. The direction veers from brilliant – when the blind pianist walks through the vast, open courtyard in the middle of the night, it’s the one truly frightening, suspenseful scene in the film – to juvenile – the close up of the knife in the heart, to name just one. The acting – or maybe I should say “acting” – makes Denise Richards’ performance as Dr. Christmas Jones in the Bond flick The World is Not Enough seem positively Oscar-worthy. Although give the actors credit: They were given absolutely nothing to work with when it came to the script, and some were not speaking their native language. And the special effects … well, yeah. I don’t expect cheapy 1970s horror effects to be great, but I do expect the director not to actually draw attention to how awful they are every step of the way, unless you’re going a funnier route, a la The Evil Dead. The only consistently good parts of this film are the soundtrack provided by the Italian band Goblin, and the intensely colorful set design, making the school and the surrounding city a huge part of the film to the extent that I sometimes found myself ignoring what was actually happening on screen to absorb the surroundings.

But my reaction is that of a 40-year-old man seeing it for the first time. As a kid, would this have creeped me out? And I don’t think it would. I know if I showed it to my kids – ages 9 and 11 – they would have laughed, if they paid attention at all. They’ve seen scarier, more attention-grabbing drama on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hell, my kids have seen more terror on episodes of the TV series Goosebumps.

It’s bad. And not good enough to be good bad, either.

Black Swan, 2010

Black Swan is everything Suspiria is not: Suspenseful, methodical, intense. Every shot director Darren Aronofsky selects has purpose and serves the story, such as the brief but telling shot of the broken ballerina spinning on Nina’s music box. Argento seems to throw shots together simply because they’re “unique.” In the scene where Suzy seeks guidance from a psychiatrist, the oddly framed over-the-shoulder shots, the shot of the reflection of the talking pair and the absurd shot of the psychiatrist from the ground where it is his small head in front of a big blue sky are unnecessary and indulgent. Where Argento bathes his film in color with little or no discernment, Aronofsky sticks to black, white, gray, brown, picking and choosing brighter colors for specific purposes: Using the pink in Nina’s room to convey immaturity and innocence, reserving red for the explosive look in Nina’s eyes when her madness and passion come to life, as well as for the blood of Nina’s rampage that spurs the final act of the film. Argento’s actors wear their emotions on their sleeves until they become an overused accessory. Natalie Portman’s Nina is shut off from her emotions, bottling her passion up until it explodes, then keeps attempting to tamp it back down until she can control it no more and it runs wild. Black Swan‘s script builds a story of madness around the physically demanding schedule of dance, diet and discipline of the ballet world. Suspiria could have been set at a girl’s school, a winery or a supermarket, because ballet plays no real role of import in the movie.

Is it unfair to compare Black Swan and Suspiria? Well, yes, to an extent, largely because Portman’s paycheck for Black Swan probably could have paid for Suspiria. However, Aronofsky has shown his ability to be brilliant despite his budget on three separate occasions: Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. Sometimes it’s less about budget, more about having a clear vision. And that, ultimately, is where Black Swan succeeds and Suspiria fails.

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6 thoughts on “Ballet movie showdown: ‘Suspiria’ vs. ‘Black Swan’

  1. vinnieh says:

    Excellent and very interesting post.

  2. The Vern says:

    I hated Suspiria when I first watched it, but it got better for me years later when I rewatched it.Yes I agree with you that Black Swan is a much better movie, but once you realize that once Jessica leaves the airport she is in a dream like world. It’s easier to buy into all the crazy madness. I think a more appropriate comparison would be Black Swan and The Red Shoes because both movies follow similar plotlines

    • adamlaredo says:

      Thanks for your comment. I didn’t really watch these with the intent to write a direct comparison. But I was really shocked in the sense that both movies had certain reputations, and only one of them lived up to it. I didn’t go into Suspiria expecting an Oscar-worthy flick. However, I really thought the whole film seemed poorly thought out and poorly executed. I get the idea of being removed from the world you know and thrust into a foreign world that seems mad, and, in this case, truly was mad. David Lynch, David Cronenberg, directors not even named David have done it well on limited time and limited budgets. Dario just didn’t pull it off, and I’m not sure why Suspiria deserves such fanboy devotion.

  3. I admire the visuals in Suspiria. All of Argento’s movies are poorly written, some just due to a language barrier. The acting always appears terrible because of his preference for dubbing. I have no real reason to like them but I do, in spite of myself.

  4. stypher says:

    I understand and respect your opinion of Suspiria, but I disagree. There seem to be two schools of thought regarding artistic merit in film: one is that a film should have as much extreme emotion and passion put into it as possible at the expense of logic (maximalism), and the other is that a film should only include what is necessary and rely on logic rather than emotion (minimalism). Suspiria and Black Swan are both highly artistic, but they are for different tastes. Suspiria is more maximalistic, whereas Black Swan is more minimalistic. I haven’t read any of your other posts, but judging by this post alone, minimalism seems to appeal to you more than maximalism. That’s perfectly fine of course, but just because a movie doesn’t appeal to you doesn’t mean it’s “awful” like you stated. I hated the movie Inception (too left-brain for my taste), but a lot of people liked it, so I don’t call it an “awful” movie. For example, some might view the extreme use of color in Suspiria as highly expressionistic, whereas the selective color palette of Black Swan is drab and uninteresting. Same with the camera angles: handheld camerawork has been overused to death in recent years, so the cinematography of Black Swan may seem unoriginal when compared to Suspiria. Neither school of thought is right or wrong, it’s just a matter of opinion.

    • adamlaredo says:

      Thanks for the comment. First off, I’m not necessarily saying you’re wrong. I’m pre-disposed to Aronofsky in general. I think Pi is amazing, and I think Requiem for a Dream is one of the best drug films I’ve ever seen. Second, watching them back-to-back wasn’t fair to Suspiria. Clearly, other than the ballet connection, these are two very different films. However, I don’t take back my “awful” comment. You can be self-indulgent and favor style over substance and cohesion and still make an interesting movie. One example I’d toss out is Easy Rider. That style is part of the structure of Easy Rider. Those lazy, stoned moments that aren’t integral to the plot of Easy Rider are part of the movie’s hippy nature, part of the point about choosing a path outside of the rat race and polite society. Even take lower-budget, less Hollywood films like The Warriors or The City of Violence. The outfits of the gangs in The Warriors are ridiculous and were, even for the time. The mean mugging is silly, the acting isn’t great and the dialogue isn’t exactly Shakespeare. But Walter Hill’s intent is to take this idea of gangs in New York and make it as surreal and over-the-top as possible, and that holds it all together. He does it by ingraining the weird in the DNA of the film. South Korea’s The City of Violence, obviously influenced by The Warriors, has a similar fashion oddness going on and a foolish gaudiness to it. But again, as out-there as the fashion is, as tacky as some of the visuals are, this is made to be a key part of the film. I’m not against gaudy, over-the-top, surreality, etc. I’m against it if it seems pointless. And in the case of Suspiria, that’s what I see: A whole lotta poorly thought out drama that didn’t shock or scare, but mostly bored. Again, thanks for the comment.

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