Give Your Soul to the Dance.
Some films should never be touched, and depending on whom you’re talking to, Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic Suspiria is one of them. Although generally regarded as somewhat of a masterpiece, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really hold Argento’s film in too high a regard — sure, I appreciate its expressionist visuals and bombastic soundtrack by Italian progressive rock band Goblin, but, let’s be frank, the movie’s got its fair share of problems. Anyhow, when I heard that Suspiria was getting a remake, I wasn’t overly fazed. Quite the opposite really, seeing as Sicilian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino was set to direct — the guy who gave us 2017’s very good Call Me by Your Name. The resulting picture, not surprisingly, winds up being one of the most polarizing experiences of the year, Guadagnino honoring what came before whilst delivering his own nightmarish take on the matriarchal horror, one with six acts and an epilogue!
Set in 1977 (the same year that the original was released), Guadagnino moves the action from Freiburg im Breisgau to a divided post-war Berlin, during the German Autumn, where a radical group of leftists, known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the Red Army Faction, were protesting against West Germany (via violent attacks, kidnappings, and bombings) and what they believed were its fascist-leaning values. Replacing Jessica Harper is Dakota Johnson who portrays Susie Bannion, a shy American Mennonite from rural Ohio, who arrives at the bombed-out city to audition for a spot at the world-renowned Markos Dance Academy. Although untrained, Susie stuns the company’s famed choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) with her striking raw talent and is promptly admitted into the troupe. Fortunately, the other women at the establishment, including Angela Winkler’s Miss Tanner and Renée Soutendijk’s Miss Huller, also seem to agree with Madame Blanc’s high sentiments towards the new girl. It’s not long, though, until Susie tries out for a role in the dance house’s upcoming piece ‘Volk,’ and wins a spot as the lead protagonist.
During her convulsive audition, Susie channels the dark magic hidden within the building, unknowingly taking over the body of a Russian student, Olga (Elena Fokina), who’d just quit the company. This leads to one of the film’s most startling sequences, and a disturbing bit of body-horror, as Olga is twisted and bent into a contorted mess, kinda like a misshapen ragdoll, hurled around a mirrored room while she spasms — a scene that distressed audiences when it was shown at CinemaCon earlier this year. As rehearsals continue for the big performance, Susie and Madame Blanc begin to grow eerily close, this suggesting that Susie’s purpose in the academy might go beyond that of just dancing.
All of this is intercut with a paralleling subplot that revolves around an elderly psychotherapist named Dr. Jozef Klemperer, who’s played by Tilda Swinton (under the pseudonym of Lutz Ebersdorf) beneath layers and layers of wrinkly prosthetics — filmmakers try so hard to convince us that Lutz Ebersdorf is a real-life person that the press kit actually contains a fake biography for the guy (!). Anyhow, we meet Klemperer when he’s visited by hysterical Markos runaway Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), who claims that the academy is being controlled by a coven of witches, Patricia handing him a diary that outlines a bunch of their demonic rituals and writings, along with information on a trio of evil spirits known as ‘The Three Mothers’ — Mother Tenebrarum, Lachrymarum, and Suspiriorum. After Patricia mysteriously disappears, the doctor continues to investigate the strange findings, teaming up with one of Susie’s classmates, a concerned dancer named Sara (Mia Goth), to search for answers. But, as Sara delves deeper into the studio’s hidden chambers, she begins to suspect that something wicked may be afoot.
Taking its cues from Argento’s ’77 movie, this Suspiria re-tool isn’t necessarily ‘scary,’ with Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich, A Bigger Splash (2015), opting for an unsettling mood rather than conjuring up conventional scares, the script (despite dealing with supernatural elements such as monsters and magic) remaining firmly rooted in reality. Touching on topics of rebirth, religion, and the transference of power (there’s a ton of symbolic images here), Guadagnino also feels it necessary to pad his narrative by focusing on the sociopolitical turmoil of Germany at the time. For instance, we get news broadcasts reporting on the kidnapping and eventual murder of German leader/ former Nazi Hanns Martin Schleyer, the arty filmmaker trying to draw some kind of analogy between the dark truths of both the Markos Academy and the surrounding real world turmoil — I don’t know, it all seems very confusing and unnecessary to me. Speaking of which, we’re also given a clumsy B-plot that revolves around Swinton’s guilt-ridden widower, who’s trying to figure out what happened to his long-lost wife, whom he was separated from during World War II.
With that said, Suspiria is at its best when it’s focusing on the dance, the film featuring several violent, captivating, borderline hypnotic dance numbers arranged by Belgo-French choreographer Damien Jalet. The highlight is the company’s aggressive showcase performance of ‘Volk,’ done in ropey, almost-naked blood-red costumes, the aforementioned subtly foreshadowing the film’s gnarly climax. Speaking of climax, the gooey finale, which revolves around a grotesque ‘mother’ known as Helena Markos — played by (surprise, surprise) Tilda Swinton — is let down by some dodgy stylistic choices that undercut the icky gore, chiefly an ugly red tint that covers the entire screen. It’s unclear whether this was done deliberately or to mask some iffy VFX work. Either way, it pissed me off.
Reuniting with his Call Me by Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, this new Suspiria looks great, though is substantially different from Argento’s luminous original, the palette a cold cloudy mix of gloomy greys and rusty browns, reminiscent of the era and the films of German moviemaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978). The editing by Walter Fasano, A Bigger Splash (2015), is also very sharp, mainly the dynamic dance numbers and disgusting dreams that come to Susie in her sleep when she’s visited by a prismatic light (think gristly hair, bloody faces and crawling earthworms), these macabre moments bound to remain with moviegoers long after they’ve flashed up on-screen. Less effective is the ethereal score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, which occasionally jars against the harsher visuals and feels way too contemporary for the period backdrop — I much preferred Goblin’s grandiose offerings.
Meditating on motherhood, femininity and the callousness of man, it makes sense that the cast is all-female, Guadagnino empowering and de-victimizing women, slyly commenting on the rise of feminism that swept Europe during the ’70s — which probably explains why the few male characters are bumbling fools, and why Tilda Swinton plays an old man for literally no reason whatsoever. Irrespective, Swinton does a stellar job in portraying three dissimilar characters; the chain-smoking headmistress Madame Blanc, the aging doctor Klemperer, and a gross sun-glasses-wearing spook that we encounter in the third act. Similarly, Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), casts a helluva spell as pale-skinned protagonist Susie, who slowly gives herself over to the dance, her fiery red hair, eloquent face and soft voice drawing me in, Johnson’s performance keeping me fixated to the screen.
Elsewhere, Mia Goth, A Cure for Wellness (2016), is better than expected as curious dancer Sara, whilst Chloë Grace Moretz, Let Me In (2010), shines as the mortified Patricia, the 21-year-old kicking things off with a nerve-racking session at Klemperer’s office. Lastly, look out for a cameo from original star Jessica Harper, who portrays the professor’s beloved missing wife, Anke.
On the whole, Suspiria ’18 is a very good film, one that’s visceral, spellbinding, and cerebral, overflowing with mounds of dense material that’s open to interpretation. Be that as it may, I still feel that it could’ve been better had the narrative been more focused, and filmmaker Guadagnino showed a little more restraint overall — the movie runs for 152 minutes, that’s over two and a half hours! Love it or hate it, one thing’s for certain, this new Suspiria, just like a nasty nightmare, is sure to haunt the mind and stay with viewers well after the credits roll.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie