Public discussions about a film’s general quality tends to fall into a clear-cut binary. Either the movie elicits an enjoyable emotion like joy, excitement, inspiration, awe, or love in a viewer, and therefore gets called a “good” movie. Or the movie fails to elicit those emotions and conjures up negative emotions like boredom, anger, anxiety, and disgust, and gets labelled a “bad” movie. In the public’s eye, a movie quality directly corresponds to its level of entertainment and enjoyability.
I bring this up because Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria is certainly not a movie I would call enjoyable. I cannot recall a movie I’ve seen recently that had me squirming in visceral discomfort at what I saw onscreen. Guadagnino’s nightmarish vision frequently left me feeling confused and disturbed as I struggled to grasp both from an intellectual and emotional level what I was seeing. It certainly is upsetting enough that I will not forget it anytime soon. Those looking for traditional scares are going to be disappointed; Guadagnino is much more interested in horrifying you instead. To be overly clear, this is not a easy watch. But it is also extremely good, and even great.
Where Dario Argento’s original Suspiria is basically an elevated giallo that riffs on genre conventions without ever reinventing them, Guadagnino takes the original’s basic form and transforms it into a nightmarish morality tale designed specifically to upset and unsettle the viewer by providing very little stable ground to stand on. He takes the phatasmagoria and technicolor hallucinations of the original and instead reimagines it into a gray and bleak meditation of evil and a grim celebration of feminine power (perhaps the most welcome corrective to Argento’s retrograde portrayal of women). It is less of a remake and more like a reincarnation, taking the elements of the original but transforming them violently into a whole different form.
This is evident right from the movie’s opening, where a prologue of sorts finds Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a runaway student of the Markos Dance Academy, spilling a bunch of incoherent secrets of the school to the psychologist Dr. Josef Klemperer (a very well disguised Tilda Swinton) before her paranoia overtakes her and she leaves as quickly as she came. Already in this scene Guadagnino dispenses with most of the narrative tension of the original: even though Klemperer is disinclined to believe her or her sanity, we are told the school is a secret coven for witches; we are told of the “Three Mothers”, Mater Suspiriorum (“Mother of Sighs”), Mater Tenebraum (“Mother of Darkness”), and Mater Lachrymarum (“Mother of Tears”). And just like that Guadagnino dispenses the central mystery of the original movie within five minutes; it is clear that the mystery he intends to uncover is deeper, darker, and much more terrifying.
It is only after these revelations that the seemingly innocent Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives at the dance academy, located mere feet from the Berlin Wall in 1977 on the eve of “The German Autumn” – a particularly fraught time in the divided Germany’s history where assassinations, hijackings, murders, and terrorism was the order of the day. Susie also arrives at the Markos Academy at a fraught time internally – the group of matrons who run the school find themselves divided in a political struggle as the elderly and authoritarian Madame Markos faces a challenge from the inspirational and mysterious Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton in her most conventional form).
Madame Blanc is the one who extends an invitation to Susie, who seemingly has won an audition for the perfectionist Blanc, sight unseen. It seems clear that Blanc’s faith in Susie’s potential is not in vain, as Susie reveals herself to be a prodigy and quickly rises up the ranks until she is given the lead part in Volk, the Academy’s signature dance routine. Susie’s meteoric rise and raw power causes a stir within the Academy, causing both excitement and consternation among their ranks. Her power is bewitching, but to what effect?
This combination of unease and excitement is exactly where this movie dwells. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first truly terrifying scene of this movie, when Susie first steps into her role as the lead in Volk. She dances with a raw, primal passion that is exhilarating and terrifying but unbeknownst to her, another dancer finds herself suddenly controlled by Susie actions in an isolated room. Back and forth we cut between the two as every one of Susie’s moves produces a violent counter-reaction, contorting the dancer’s body into truly horrifying and brutal shapes – a marriage of beauty and terror that is bound to leave even the hardiest viewer disturbed. And this is only the beginning.
Though it could not be tonally more different from his previous work Call Me By Your Name, it is thrilling to see Guadagnino use similar tricks to more sinister effect. Where Call Me By Your Name was bathed in warm light which simply heightened the intimacy of that tale, his Suspiria is shrouded in grays and browns befitting its chilly nature. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me By Your Name, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) meanwhile marries his meditative style with great sweeping movements and throwback techniques from 70s, giving the entirely disconcerting feel. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke meanwhile tries his hands at composing a soundtrack and the results are a doozy. In stark contrast to the original’s prog rock horror soundtrack, Yorke opts for dissonance and melancholy, creating an eerie soundscape. All these elements create a movie that is entirely unlike Argento’s version, and seems to be finely callibrated to create unease and discord in us.
Anchoring the movie is two phenomenal performances by Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Swinton’s prowess is well-established of course, whose icy charisma is put to chilling effect as Madame Blanc. Of course, Blanc’s performance is exactly the kind we assume is tailor-made for her and seemingly not content with merely knocking that role out of the park, Swinton plays a trio of characters who could not be more different from one another. I don’t know what the rules are for nominating an actor for playing multiple roles in the same movie but Swinton’s turn in Suspiria deserves notice.
However if Swinton’s excellence is expected, it is Dakota Johnson who steals our attention. Like Kristen Stewart before with Twilight, Johnson found herself saddled as being merely “the girl” from the increasingly torrid Fifty Shades franchise, and Suspiria represents the opportunity for her to shed that label and it is clear that she seizes that opportunity with great aplomb. She is given the difficult task of having to ping back and forth between waifish and naive innocence and the utter confidence she feels when she dances. The shift between these two poles is often instantaneous and with a mere flick of an eye – I doubt I have seen a more chilling transformation all year. Her performance here hints that like Stewart, she has the natural ability to transcend her franchise beginnings.
It has been five days since I watched Suspiria, in a viewing that prompted some people to walk out and the other half to sit enraptured through the credits. It is a movie that is intent on leaving you with an emotional and mental mess for you to try and entangle. And I understand those who seek out less upsetting materia. But the further away I have gotten from the movie, the deeper it has hooked into my mind. While the initial shock of the movie’s final terrifying conclusion has faded, the themes the movie raises regarding evil and the power of reckoning have remained resonant. Other movies released this year may be more easily digestible and thus more easily praised. But if I had to guess which movie from 2018 we might be talking about and dissecting a decade or two from now, I would give my vote to Suspiria whose nightmarish vision provides more than enough trauma to linger long into our collective consciousness.
Runtime: 152 minutes
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by David Kajganich
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Malgorzata Bela, Chloe Grace Moretz, Angela Winkler, Elena Fokina, Mia Goth, Ingrid Caven