What is Suspiria about? It’s about an American woman who goes to an extremely Italian Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy, and who slowly discovers that it is actually being run by a coven of demonic witches. (She would have figured it out a lot earlier if she could have listened to the soundtrack, in which a semi-diagetic voice occasionally whispers “witch!”)
But it’s really not about that at all. Just as Diva was, in the words of one critic, a movie about the color blue, Suspiria is a movie about the color red — and green, and yellow, and blue, and a handful of others.
The colors coat every surface, to the point where it becomes impossible to tell how much is paint and how much is lighting. They are impossibly, cartoonishly vibrant, almost becoming a form of violence against the viewer. They are so garish one has to turn away from the screen. In their own way, they take the place of the violence typical of the giallo genre (not that, in brief flashes, the film isn’t violent enough on its own).
What strikes me most about Suspiria‘s colors is the way they completely fail to coordinate in any meaningful way. The colors may be technically complementary — the blue and gold so notoriously overused in movie posters make quite a few appearances — but they don’t act as complements to one another, with one breaking up the other as an accent.
Instead, the world of the shot is divided up into three-dimensional realms within which one color dominates, autonomous zones with little or no visual relationship to one another. Within each zone, the color’s brightness and dominance curiously brings us back to the world of the black-and-white film.
The very impossible brightness of the brightest patches and the completely monochromatic design draw our eyes to the shadows and the nuances in a way the typical use of color does not. It is as if we are watching a black-and-white movie, but one in which there are different kinds of white at play.
The silent, black-and-white film was famously neither silent nor black and white; the projectionist used a number of gels to indicate a sense of location. Suspiria seems to follow directly from that tradition. It is as truly a color film as the great noirs are black-and-white films, a world of color as whiteness.