Before we descend into this fantastical vision, a brief disclaimer. In a way, one almost wishes that Luca Guadagnino hadn’t called his latest film Suspiria — maybe Suspirium instead, based on the name of the ancient mother who plays the biggest role in the unraveling of its plot — because the constant competition in the minds of critics between this latest film and Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, both interpretations of the same premise yet vastly different, are doing a disservice to both.
It’s a cop-out to compare the two in perpetuity, and comes across as a refusal to engage with the film on its own terms. This is a bummer for a number of reasons; chief amongst them that Guadagnino has done what we always hope a filmmaker will do when they attempt to update a classic film: Make it their own. And this Suspiria is as much Guadagnino’s as the original was Argento’s, and this work lives and dies on that difference.
So, it’s with joy in my heart that I direct those who can’t separate the two to the wonderful restoration of the original that Synapse Films put out earlier this year. It’s an incredible translation of Argento’s classic, full of the vibrantly colored visuals and allegory-free plotting, and the Goblin score has never sounded better. It’s worth the purchase, and you should stop reading this review right now, purchase this, and pretend that the remake doesn’t exist. It’ll save you plenty of heartbreak.
But back to the matter at hand: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria is a wild and wonderful horror masterpiece, a broad and bizarre dissertation about the divided Germany at the height of Baader-Meinhof, one of the most electric modern dance films ever crafted by human hands, and it will piss a lot of people off. Its ensemble, led by the inimitable Tilda Swinton (here playing three different roles), is strong and game for whatever Guadagnino, screenwriter David Kajganich, and choreographer Damien Jalet have in store for them. This is a fiercely combative film, one that doesn’t give a good goddamn if you think that it’s slow or lacking in gore (until it most definitely isn’t) or if you preferred the original, and it is designed to frustrate. It almost surely requires a second viewing — soon after the first — in order to parse everything within its 152 minutes, but, at least for this critic, that won’t be a chore.
The core premise of Suspiria remains intact — a young American woman named Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) heads to Germany to study at a dance academy where bad things happen to dancers thanks to the machinations of the witches on staff — but it is filtered through the context of Berlin, through the reality of post-war post-Wall Germany, perhaps as seen by the Neo-Realists like Rossellini and their antecedents like Cavani. It’s into the snowy landscape that young Susie — a mennonite from the heart of Ohio, who has left behind her dying mother (Malgosia Bela) in order to pursue a desire that has always tugged at her — arrives at the Markos Dance Academy. It is a place that has stalked her dreams since childhood, where she soon is taken under the wing of the charismatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and quickly rises through the ranks of the company. Of course, Susie’s opportunities come at the misfortunes of others; one RAF-supporting young American woman by the name of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), is driven mad by her suspicions of the supernatural at work and promptly goes missing, leaving only her caring therapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf) to track her down. And the heads of the dance company have something special planned for Susie as well, a dance that may shake the very core of the world itself.
As you may have surmised, this is a bleak film, and it takes its time revealing itself while depriving the audience of a number of pleasures. The film’s blunted color palette, meant by Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (reuniting with the director after the pair worked together on Call Me By Your Name) to be “winterish,” is desaturated and grainy, and it looks to be closer to the work of someone like Tomas Alfredson (well, back before he sank his career with The Snowman) than any assumed forbearer. It’s an approach that suits its time period, with its free-wheeling chaos and national depression, and its moment in German history, when the older generations that cheered the rise of the Third Reich and had been spared the worst of the reckoning that followed were faced with the winter of their discontented years. I’d argue that Klemperer’s b-plot is as essential to the film as anything else within it, and a lot of your reaction to this particular piece of art will depend on how willing you are to roll with watching a doddering guilt-ridden old man stumble upon the gears upon which the world turns. I found it a pleasure to watch, thanks to that particular performance of Swinton’s (here credited as Ebersdorf, presumably to let the performance stand upon its own), which is a marvel, one that defies the usual terrible expectations of old-age make-up. The setting never overwhelms, the subtext providing the color the visuals once did.
But Guadagnino’s approach doesn’t lack tension, either: it’s never boring, given that you’re only ever a few minutes away from a striking visual, or another grace note plucked from one of the film’s young leads, or from seeing something that will truly shock your ass awake, be it a dance sequence or brutality — and often the two are intertwined. This is never clearer than in the film’s first major dance sequence, in which Susie begins to take over the lead in the performance that the Company is working on from a rightfully disturbed young woman named Olga (Elena Fokina), who finds her self trapped in a private dance studio without a door. As Susie begins the dance, Olga begins to contort, finding herself thrown against the mirrored walls, her limbs shattering, her organs distending, until she’s an unrecognizable husk, shriveled like a spider after the first cold snap. Every act of creation in this film is followed by an equal and painful act of destruction, the artist’s torment made bluntly manifest. And don’t even get me started on the incredible sequence in which their dance — Volk — is finally performed in front of a crowd. It must be seen to be believed.
If there’s one thing that sticks out as a bit of a sore thumb early on, it’s Thom Yorke’s krautrock-inspired score, which is decently pitched to this film’s tenor whenever Yorke isn’t doing his etherial yodeling, but eventually the two manage to find a common ground. His voice simply just feels a bit out of place — everything is so heavily centered around this time period that it’s a distracting bolt of modernity — but eventually it compliments the sound design well-enough that it becomes essential to the world-altering ritual performed at the heart of the third act, full of its delirium and intense gore (which had to be covered up in a red hue to pass the MPAA’s muster, much like Kill Bill had to go black-and-white back in 2003 for the same reason). It’s a seismic change in the world of the film, and it feels properly operatic and grand — a younger generation, freed from the burdens of the past, seizing the reins and making things new once again. An absolution waits at the end of this film, and it’s worth the trip. This Suspiria is beautifully enigmatic in its processes and vast in its delights, and for those willing to follow along and vibe along with it, its rewards are plentiful.