The Masculine in "First Man" & The Feminine in "Suspiria"
Spoilers for First Man and Suspiria.
First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic, sees director Damien Chazelle moving away from jazz music, yet he remains fixated on the driven man reaching for greatness and damn the costs. His previous collaborator, Ryan Gosling, inscrutable and classically handsome, does steely obsession better than most. Naturally he’s good a good fit for the notoriously private Armstrong, who before the moon landing was an unassuming astronaut quietly grieving the death of his two year old daughter, Karen.
Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission to the Moon is charted with hand-to-brow authenticity that is impressive and technically astounding, with some set-pieces that set your teeth on edge, particularly the ones depicting these inadequate test spacecrafts lethally rattling and bouncing around the atmosphere. We consider the moon landing to be an unremarkable fact of life, but it’s a miracle more people didn’t die for this mission.
While First Man refers to the first who reached the moon, it might as well also refer to the original conception of man in modern society: a lonely figure, repressed, lacking the tools to articulate emotional needs. Far from being the jovial, open-hearted hero, Armstrong here is cold and distant, as unromantic as a plate of unseasoned meat and potatoes. First Man suggests that Armstrong undertook the Apollo 11 mission with a gusto bordering on mania to avoid processing his grief. The taciturn man goes so far as to concede that it would be unreasonable to assume the death of his daughter wouldn’t have “some effect” on their mission; he’ll readily admit to vulnerability when it’s in service to that most manly virtue of rationality.
However, it is when he plants his feet on the moon, when only a suit of nylon tricot separates him from instant oblivion, does he allow himself a centimetre of sentimentality. He lets go of his daughter’s bracelet, watching it gently float into the dark. This small gesture of vulnerability is the real triumphantly transcendent moment. It’s a sign of First Man’s emotional complexity that we also feel like indecent voyeurs in this moment.
Suspiria shares a similar enough premise with the 1977 original: A young woman comes to Germany to study at a dance academy. In this new version, particular emphasis is placed on the coven of witches. In fiction, witches often signify the very male fear of uncontrolled feminine power. The word itself, “witch”, has negative connotations. Like, you ever hear of wizards being burnt at the stake or a “wizard hunt”?
However, for an artsy, intellectual horror film, Suspiria doesn’t do much to subvert this kind of old-fashioned idea; at least, in my opinion. For instance, two of the most explicitly disgusting and bone-chilling scenes involve the witches maliciously using their power to inflict harm. The matrons punish a young dancer who angrily storms off — by folding her body like origami. Piss, blood, and drool leaks out of her in between the sounds of bones crunching and moans of agony. Another scene much later in the film involves two of the matron witches hypnotising and humiliating one of the few male characters in the film, stripping him bare and laughing at his genitals; the unspoken threat of castration gives the scene a potent, dreadful power.
What exactly Suspiria is trying to say regarding feminist power and femininity is often complicated and contradictory. Maybe that’s a point in and of itself. But the film feels like a confusing bundle of intentions; the wintry, bleak colour palette, the deliberate pace and nearly 3 hour running time all but demands a straightforward appreciation for this as a sophisticated piece of art. And yet certain key moments are so over the top and campy, seemingly of a piece with the trashy graphic overload of the 1977 original. I didn’t even really like Suspiria, and yet it contains some of the most memorable and disturbing imagery I’ve seen this year and I have a strong desire to revisit it.