Director: Luca Guadagnino
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth
It’s an old truism that we communicate far more through our body language than we ever do verbally. How we carry ourselves. Our posture. The amount of eye contact we maintain. All of these things are indicators. Tells of the feelings we have and the feelings we’re trying to hide. Luca Guadagnino’s grand reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria takes body language to its most fantastic conclusion; what if it were an actual language, and our very gestures and movements could become incantations all of their own? With the story set in an all-female dance company, this notion also allows for investigation into archetypes of feminine pose; to seduce, to threaten, to protect. And, perhaps involuntarily, the film becomes reflexive over how these poses are interpreted by a male writer and director. How they – and we – choose to receive them.
The bones of the original idea of Suspiria are here. It is set in a German dance academy in 1977. The academy is a front for a coven of witches. An American girl named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson this time) arrives just in time for a malevolent supernatural shitstorm. But by most other barometers Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have taken the core concept and used it as licence to explore their own ideas. It’s a bold new interpretation, the extremes of which are likely spurred on by the temptation to ‘outdo’ Argento but in a radically different way.
So where Argento battered you out of the gate, Guadagnino coyly lures you in with inference, rumour and disparate images that you’re invited to connect. A title card announces that the film is divided into six acts and an epilogue; advanced warning that this isn’t going to be a svelte little horror. Indeed, Suspiria circa 2018 runs to an intimidating 153 minutes; nearly an hour longer than its forebearer. There’s a shared false logic about horror than it is best administered in 90 minutes or less. That’s all well and good, but a film should be as long (or short) as it needs to be. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a long film, but that’s to benefit the tone of the piece, which has more in common with the output of Polanski or Roeg in the 70’s than it does Argento.
This is a low sigh of a film, ably assisted by Thom Yorke’s breathy, ethereal score. Guadagnino presents it in the dead of winter and the palette is his coldest since I Am Love. The Markos Academy stands adjacent to the Berlin wall, and the political upheavals of the period touch the edges of the story like explorative fingers. Chiefly the wall brings in the theme of division, as within the academy a rift is growing; should the coven be steered by the reclusive Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton) or the more present and hands-on Madame Blanc (also Swinton). Elsewhere, a grieving psychotherapist named Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again) starts his own investigations into the group, spurred on by the ravings of former dancer Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) who has been driven mad by her experiences.
With so many plates set spinning, this Suspiria aims to capture an itching unrest. The urge to investigate and the tensions of internal struggle are distractions from the status quo. Into this steps Johnson’s Susie; seemingly serene with her long ginger hair; pleasant but ambitious. Within days she has impressed Blanc to the degree that she will take the ‘protagonist’ role in the company’s signature dance. Named ‘Volk’, it is an emotionally and physically draining piece choreographed by Blanc herself. It is an expression of wartime female trauma which doubles as a dark and powerful incantation… but to what end?
While I don’t intend to spend the entire review zipping back and forth over the many differences between Argento’s film and Guadagnino’s, one of the more hilarious failings of the original is Argento’s clear disinterest in anything remotely dance related. His scenes of the students practising are woefully comical. Guadagnino, on the other hand, makes these scenes among the film’s most important. They are, simply, electric and Johnson takes to the demanding work with intense gusto. Can there be an Academy Award for Best Choreography? Damien Jalet’s contribution here is significant.
With its washed out tones, its setting and its themes of transformation, Guadagnino’s film recalls Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan; itself inspired in part by Suspiria. Art comes full circle. But as things progress, the spirit of Aronofsky’s more recent and divisive mother! comes to the fore. Similar to the way in which that film and Ari Aster’s celebrated Hereditary bedded you in and then ratcheted the stress levels, this Suspiria simmers for the longest time and then pointedly – jarringly – boils over. In the space of a year these three films form a loose and unintended trilogy. They are all films which veer into the hysterical, look the viewer right in the eye, and dare them to blink. Make no mistake, the final act of Suspiria in 2018 contains some crazy shit. You’ll be provoked to either cower or break out in laughter.
There’s a lot to unpack about the events of act six and the subsequent epilogue and discussion will certainly continue over the intentions here. Those discussions are innately wrapped up in plot spoilers I wouldn’t dare explore now as I encourage the brave and resilient among you to give this film a try. It is long. It is provocative (has Guadagnino been talking with Lars Von Trier?). But it is brimming with ideas and suggestions. All of these things it leaves with you to pick over and access to your own (dis)content. Which items are indulgences, which are folly, and which are the ones that truly resonate.