Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf
Watch Suspiria online in the UK: Date TBC
“I want to start work on a new piece. A piece about rebirths.” That’s Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), the eerily composed matriarch of a West Berlin dance academy. She’s speaking with soft authority to a group of young women, carefully auditioned and chosen for their technical prowess, physical agility and, we begin to guess, something else entirely, as we witness the room in action – a primal smorgasbord of pointed choreography and impassioned improvisation. It’s at once dazzling and disturbing to behold. Dance is about space, Blanc muses while chain-smoking imperiously, about synchronised bodies that conjure up coordinates, combinations and a spiritual quintessence; a spell that weaves magic through movement.
That’s the subtle distinction between Dario Argento’s seminal horror and Luca Guadagnino’s remake: where Argento’s original was about conjuring an atmosphere of dreamy dread through vivid colours and expressionist sets, Guadagnino’s incarnation is, to some degree, actually about dance. But that slight difference prises the pair dramatically apart, and the A Bigger Splash director steers us into territory that’s lovingly reverential towards its source material, but remains entirely its own.
Into this divinely creepy crucible steps Susie (Dakota Johnson), a Mennonite daughter from an Ohio farm who dreams of dancing with the exclusive troupe. Impressing in her trial, she winds up with the lead role in their signature piece, Volk. As she attempts the routine proper for the first time, Guadagnino cuts her thrusting, writhing determination with the dismantling of the dancer she’s replaced – a scene of ugly contortions and uncontrollable bodily fluids that takes place in a hidden hall of shattered mirrors. It’s a deeply unsettling, gut-squirmingly graphic spectacle, a set piece that weaponises dance directly, turning expression, an act of creation, into a simultaneous hex of destruction.
Behind that power, though, lies another: witchcraft. Over Suspiria’s 152 minutes, we gradually peel back the layers that conceal this long-running witch’s coven, a deep-seated chamber of shadows and secrets that’s apparently biding its time until the coming of a hallowed mother figure. The problem is that Guadagnino is so busy diving into this spooky world that he gets a little too lost in its mythological labyrinth. In place of Argento’s 90-minute fright fest is a story that spans “six acts and an epilogue”, and not all of those acts earn their place.
That’s most notable when we meet Dr. Jozef Klemperer, a psychiatrist whose curiosity is piqued by his patient, Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a former member of the dance school. When she disappears, he takes it upon himself to find out what happened. His attempted imposition of logic and dismissal of the truth makes for an interesting contrast to the rise of female power taking place under his feet, not least because the actor playing him (Lutz Ebersdorf) is almost definitely Swinton in a second role, disguised under lots of prosthetic. He brings with him echoes of history and division (the end of the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s first generation unfolds violently off-screen), as screenwriter David Kajganich (AMC’s The Terror) draws parallels between the wider split of 1977 Germany and the political disagreements taking place within the academy itself.
But while Ebersdorf’s shuffling presence opens doors to a moving suggestion of catharsis, it distracts from the suspense building throughout the rest of the film – there’s a jarring shift in style and mood between his slow-moving segments and the nightmarish montages of hands, worms, blood and worse that aggressively punctuate Susie’s dreams. Indeed, it’s telling that Dakota Johnson’s character feels almost absent at times, with more compelling emotional journeys given to Mia Goth’s Sara and Moretz’s Patricia. Even Swinton’s Madame Blanc suffers from a lack of clear purpose as the story sweeps its ensemble forward – the most obvious victim of the movie’s split focus between dark delights and the empowering nature of dance itself.
Nonetheless, Suspiria claws a way into your brain and stays there for days afterwards; its haunting images lurk under the skin, just as its portentous mood (evoked by Thom Yorke’s chilling, ethereal score) crawls over it. The script’s overly serious themes can’t diminish the impact of the jaw-dropping climax, or wipe Guadagnino’s operatic visuals from your memory. This is a gorgeously framed work of performance art, one that doesn’t choreograph all of its moving parts, but weaves a subliminal spell that is quietly enchanting (and will surely lead to a wave of essays and think-pieces, both for and against it).
As a remake, this is a bizarre yet almost boldly intellectual interpretation of a deceptively simple story. As a follow-up to Call Me By Your Name, though, it’s an astonishing left-field turn from a filmmaker who continues to reveal surprising sides to his ambitious storytelling. Compared to the initial Suspiria, this remake is a distinctly new piece that, despite its complexity, compellingly dwells on the trauma of rebirths, brooding on the pull of creation and revelling in the inescapability of destruction. It may not all come together on a first viewing, but one suspects fresh reincarnations will be found with the next, inevitable re-watch.
Suspiria is out now in UK cinemas, distributed by MUBI UK. It will be available on the streaming service at a later date.
Suspiria premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Catch up with our reviews and interviews from the Lido here.