Review: 'Suspiria'

Tuesday, October 30, 2018
A still from 'Suspiria'.

Dance Dance Revolution

2018 / Italy, USA / 152 min. / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018; opens locally on Nov. 2, 2018

by:
Andrew Wyatt

First things first: Director Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is not really a remake of Dario Argento’s inimitable 1977 giallo-turned-fantasia of the same name, at least not in any remotely meaningful sense of the word. Both films are (loosely) horror features, and both are centered on a Berlin-based dance school that serves as a front for a witches' coven. Other than those reductive facts and some shared character names and traits, Suspiria 2018 has almost nothing in common with Suspiria 1977. To say that the former is a remake of the latter is akin to asserting that Blood for Dracula (1974) is a remake of Nosferatu (1922): technically correct in some tortured sense, but not very relevant or edifying.

Nonetheless, owing to the shared title – and a “based on characters by” credit to Argento and his collaborator and then-partner Daria Nicolodi – it’s perhaps inevitable that Guadagnino’s film will be discussed in the context of its predecessor’s long, blood-red shadow. Indeed, it’s clear that Guadagnino has, in numerous respects, quite deliberately fashioned his Suspiria as a counterpoint to Argento’s feature. The 1977 film operates according to the logic of a nightmarish fairy tale, reveling in the way that color, sound, and music can be employed as vectors for pure, almost abstracted terror. The Suspiria of 2018, meanwhile, is chilly and cerebral, a thesis on all the unsettled atrocities of the past and present, couched in the vocabulary of feminist theory and body horror. It’s gray and severe where Argento’s film is garish and florid; political rather than mythic; forlorn rather than fantastical. If the first Suspiria is Matisse’s Dance, then the second is Francis Bacon’s Pope Innocent X.

Almost by definition, Guadagnino’s version could never be as aesthetically and primordially galvanic as its namesake. (How could it? What filmmaker would even want to try?) For that, Argento enthusiasts will perhaps inevitably give this reimagining all kinds of flak, some of it deserved, most of it not. Unquestionably, Suspiria 2018 is an intellectually immodest thing, as swollen with ideas as a 2,000-page dissertation on Marxist themes in the oeuvre of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose works this film at times evokes). Yet Guadagnino’s feature is ultimately content to be thought-provoking rather than groundbreaking – if occasionally horrific in bizarre, innovative ways.

Where a different sort of art-horror filmmaker might have resisted any gesture that could be construed as pretension, Guadagnino – here taking his initial, without-a-net plunge into the genre, after the Apollonian warmth of last year’s Call Me by Your Name – seems to have embraced pretense, preemptively and lustily. That’s certainly a choice, as they say, and the director deserves credit for his boldness. This Suspiria, after all, is a ground-up reworking of a horror feature that has been canonized as a singular, untouchable masterpiece. Guadagnino could have been forgiven for playing it safe and treating his film merely as an opportunity to pay reverent homage to Argento’s original.

Instead, the director has taken some wild risks. Most prominently, he has explicitly set this tale of blackest magic against the backdrop of the real-world(-ish) events of late 1977 (the “German Autumn”). The Red Army Faction is abducting executives, the Stasi has eyes everywhere, and the Lufthansa 181 hijacking plays out on overheard radio broadcasts. This sort of pointed political context doesn’t necessarily pay the thematic dividends that Guadagnino seems to have intended, instead often coming off as a kind of jarring Cold War cosplay. Smoking cigarettes and bustling about their shared kitchen, the film’s witches ironically seem more realistic than the crowds of generic left-wing protesters agitating for the release of RAF founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof – the latter already (oops) dead in the ground over a year by October 1977. Overall, however, Guadagnino is broadly successful in his efforts to frame this Suspiria – a mad tale of esoteric feminine power and ritual dance-as-magic – as one vivid fragment in an eternal human drama of coups, purges, and glorious revolutions.

Set in a “divided Berlin” the same year that Argento’s original was released, this version is similarly centered on an American ingenue named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), although here she is fleshed out as a Good Christian Girl hailing from a Mennonite enclave in Ohio. Having once seen Berlin's vehemently modern Markos Dance Academy perform during a trip to New York, Susie became obsessed with joining the school at an early age. Now a young adult, she has made her way to Germany, even as her poor, ailing mother lies bedridden back at her family's Ohio farm, wheezing painfully on the brink of death. Susie guilelessly presents herself to the Markos Academy instructors, including headmistress and creative director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), an artiste’s artiste who glides about in black caftans making proclamations such as “We must break the nose of every beautiful thing.” Despite her complete absence of résumé, references, or formal training, Susie’s audition dazzles the academy’s teachers, who assure her that no tuition is needed, the school being long ago organized as a financially autonomous artist's collective.

That detail – as well as the absence of the male students who appeared on the margins of Argento’s film – hints at this Suspiria’s absorption with female power wielded independently of any relationship to patriarchy. Early in the film, Guadagnino captures the academy staff during an informal election, his camera circling hypnotically as the women gather and verbally vote for either Blanc or the absent incumbent, academy founder Helena Markos. (The latter emerges as the victor, a point that will be relevant later.) Outside the walls of the academy there might be Popular Front hijackings and blood-dimmed chaos, but within there is feminine accord – at least at first glance.

Pointedly, the only male character of any import in the film is a doddering, half-deaf Jewish psychiatrist, Josef Klemperer (portrayed by “Lutz Ebersdorf,” actually Swinton under old-age prosthetics). Wracked by survivor’s guilt over the wartime death of his wife (played in flashbacks by the original Susie Bannion, Jessica Harper), the elderly doctor is perpetually shuffling through dismal government checkpoints, first West to his office apartment, then East to his one-room dacha, then back again. He’s a fitting proxy for the men that the Markos matrons find so contemptibly inessential, a figure ultimately more pitiable than threatening.

It’s through Klemperer, however, that the viewer first learns of the Markos school’s dark secrets, just before Susie arrives in Germany. One of the doctor’s patients, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), turns up on his doorstep in an agitated state, babbling paranoid fantasies. A student at the Markos Academy, she’s come to believe that her instructors are witches with foul designs on her body and soul. “They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate,” she declares with matter-of-fact fatalism. Convinced that every eye peering out from a photo or book cover is a scrying organ for the coven, she abruptly flees Klemperer’s office and thereafter vanishes. She leaves behind a scrawled journal, however, which the doctor peruses with mounting concern in the coming days. He may not believe in witchcraft, but he does believe in criminal conspiracy, in addition to knowing thing or two about the darkling allure of symbols and titles.

Conveniently enough for the newly arrived Susie, Patricia’s disappearance – which the academy staff suggests is related to her flirtations with radical Communism – happens to open up a bed in the school’s dormitories. There, Susie befriends Sara (Mia Goth), a fellow student with a savvy-sweet personality, and soon enough the pair are embarking on a Nancy Drew-ish snooping expedition and cuddling up together in bed as a bulwark against disturbing nightmares (such dreams being "a Markos Academy specialty"). Seemingly overnight, Susie assumes the mantle of school phenom, much to the consternation of some of the established students. When the lead dancer (Elena Fokina) in the academy’s new performance departs in a tearful huff, Susie volunteers to rehearse the protagonist role without any prior experience. This she does in a bravura scene that culminates in grotesque horror, as Susie’s thrusting hands and stomping feet become – unbeknownst to her – literal weapons in a rite of sympathetic death magic. It seems that Blanc and Co. have big plans for their new star, as evidenced by murmurs concerning failed rituals, imperfect vessels, and Markos’ clandestine arrival at the school.

For this macabre tale, Guadagnino affects an eccentric visual style that evokes classic 1970s horror features: giallos from Mario Bava and Argento himself, of course, but also British genre landmarks like The Wicker Man (1973), The Shout (1978), and especially Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). As they did in Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino and Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom employ 35mm film and a relatively conservative 1.85:1 widescreen ratio to give the film a faintly dated look. However, it’s the more ornate visual gestures such as snap zooms, freeze frames, and jittery slow motion that place Suspiria decisively within its (illusory) 1977 context. While aesthetically distinct from the crumbling necropolis that Roeg fashioned from nocturnal Venice in Don’t Look Now, the cold, slate-gray edifices of Suspiria’s brutalist Berlin architecture feel similarly forlorn. There are radical protests in the streets, but this Germany seems decimated, depopulated, and besieged, full of empty spaces peopled mostly by the ghosts of the Third Reich’s victims. The words of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert resonate: tuesday: the mayor is killed by unknown assailants / wednesday: talks of armistice the enemy interned our envoys / we don’t know where they are being kept i.e. tortured.

Caught like a pinned beetle between the almighty Deutsche Mark and Communist terror – and still agonized by the convulsions of its psychic denazification – Suspiria’s Berlin is an unexpectedly redolent backdrop for a repulsive, gore-spattered tale of politicking witches. For political upheaval is ultimately what Susie’s arrival represents in the conception of Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich – who also penned the director’s A Bigger Splash (2016) and AMC’s icebound horror series The Terror (2018). While the Markos coven is presented as a group that thrums with very real yonic energy, its machinations are not all that different from those of the male-dominated nation-states and guerilla cells it reviles. Suspiria is, at bottom, the story of a revolution, and whether political or magical, all transformations require a blood sacrifice. The coven simply pursues such ends within a fiercely feminine occult idiom that explicitly muddles creation and destruction. (Kali might well be their patron goddess.) It’s hardly incidental that the witches’ favored weapon is a gruesome bronze hook; where a male villain might wield a more overtly phallic stabbing blade, the Markos women prefer a parabola-like instrument that suggests a uterine or vaginal form. These witches also cackle: shrilly, mirthlessly, and disdainfully, their peals slicing assaultively into the sound mix in a way that recalls the film's pre-sync giallo antecedents.

Susie is less the protagonist of this anarchic story than its catalyzing agent. Harper’s 1977 iteration of the character was a wide-eyed babe in the woods, shrinking like a silent-film damsel from every fresh horror. Johnson’s Susie is dreamier and more inscrutable, her wavy auburn tresses suggesting not innocence but threat. Even Blanc seems a bit perturbed by her new protégé’s sorcerous power, eyeing her nervously as Susie asserts control over her choreography and speaks in disconcerting non sequiturs: “Why is everyone so ready to think the worst is over?”

Her suspicions prodded by a meeting with Klemperer, it is Sara who fills the role of the film’s sleuthing heroine for a time, at least until she stumbles onto the coven’s secrets and draws the witches’ ire. With Patricia’s forgotten journal in hand – its margins scribbled with arcane hierarchies, RAF logos, and references to three immortal “mothers” – Klemperer is thereafter the only character left to carry on the search for the truth. Ultimately, however, the aged psychiatrist is more of an impotent bystander than a seeker: sadistically manipulated, humiliated, and enslaved as a mute witness to the coven’s sabbath. Flouting genre conventions that demand a (often male) “detective” character who successfully ferrets out the facts, Guadagnino’s film is more elegy than thriller, a long, shuddering exhale of sorrow for all that has been (and will be) lost in the myriad atrocities of human history.

It’s weighty stuff for a lurid tale about murderous witches, and at times the director’s intellectual ambitions outrun his ability to keep the whole confounding thing held together. The constant references to the events of the German Autumn often feel unaccountably phony, and while the aim might be to ground the fantastical elements, all the Wikipedia name-dropping has the perverse effect of dislocating the film’s events from reality. Relatedly, it’s not clear what purpose is served by slotting Swinton into the Klemperer role. This bit of stunt casting is more distracting than illuminating, as is often the case with incidents of coy, latex-assisted age- and gender-bending. Perhaps the filmmaker’s intention was along the lines of the Wachowskis in Cloud Atlas (2012) – a vivid, faintly transgressive means to illustrate the characters’ shared humanity – but the result is similarly off-putting. (Swinton is, nonetheless, quite good in the role, especially as the film wears on and the suffocating weight of Klemperer’s guilt and helplessness is more keenly felt.)

Nothing is quite so emblematic of the film’s over-extension, however, as Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s calculatingly schizophrenic score. In the abstract, it’s a fine, even entrancing composition. However, the score's musical style swings so wildly from scene to scene that that it quashes any sense of unifying theme. The film’s aural landscape is perpetually shifting, abruptly and discordantly: now rumbling ambient noise; now a slinky melody layered with sitar-like droning; now a chilly synth requiem; now Yorke’s characteristic ethereal vocals and piano tinkling. Most perplexingly, the composer rolls out a lush, almost lounge-like love song for the film’s blood-drenched climax, a choice that ranks alongside the use of Joe Cocker’s cover of “You Are So Beautiful” in Carlito’s Way (1993) for sheer, left-field dissonance.

Much more resoundingly successful is Guadagnino’s employment of dance, an element that was almost incidental in Argento’s original, but here serves as the film’s writhing, stamping heart. What color was to the 1977 Suspiria, motion is to the 2018 Suspiria. The Markos Academy does not teach classical ballet, or even the edgy modern ballet of Black Swan (2010), but a ferocious and dramatic mode of contemporary dance, in the style of legendary German choreographer Pina Bausch. Editor Walter Fasano cuts the dance sequences – wonderfully choreographed by the artistically dauntless Damien Jalet – in violent and emphatic fashion, underlining the thematic essence of Guadagnino’s film: The movement of human bodies according to ritual formulae is nothing less than a kind of spellwork, and like all magic it may be used for purposes either beneficial or malign. (Mostly the latter in this case.)

Of course, the Markos coven never really seems to do much with its supernatural talents, other than to consolidate power for its own sake, and in this respect their dark sisterhood ironically mirrors the squabbling male polities outside the academy. If there’s a feminine grace to be found in their conjurations, it’s paradoxically embodied in Mother Suspirium, a demon witch-goddess who lurks at the story’s periphery. It’s she who delivers the film’s rare gestures of mercy, and it’s she who appears in a stunning transfiguration at the climax. Her ribcage split open to reveal her throbbing viscera, she evokes not only the exaggerated vulva of a sheela na gig on a medieval church, but no less a figure than the Virgin Mary with her pierced and flaming Immaculate Heart.

Rating: B