Here we have some real dirty dancing, kids.
In 1977 Berlin, talented American dancer, Susie Bannion, enrols in a prestigious dance academy for which soon unravels itself as a front for a coven of malicious witches.
For the last few years, I have been following the directorial efforts of Italian filmmaker, Luca Guadagnino to great attention. Having released somewhat romantic-type pictures centring around the theme of desire, above all else, with I Am Love, A Bigger Splash and most recently Call Me By Your Name, the director’s now more mainstream ascension to horror filmmaking in 2018’s Suspiria remake is both a welcome and weird a** one. Reuniting with previous collaborators, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson, Guadagnino has managed to transform a colourful gorefest of a 1970s absurdist horror film into a bleak discomfort of a post-Cold War Arthouse horror homage… yeah. So, just as a warning, before I begin my deep dive into the new Suspiria, buckle your seatbelts and get cosy, because trust me, I have quite a lot of thoughts concerning this film.
Let’s go first person for a second: I am currently writing this review on Saturday and I saw Suspiria on Wednesday (Halloween). I have allowed Guadagnino’s newest feature to marinate on my mind for a few days now and still, going into this review, I am very tentative to give my full thoughts on the film entirely. I cannot be sure if everything I feel about Suspiria is complete and well-realised. Then again, with any piece of intricate art, thoughts and feelings are welcomed to change and evolve over time. And so, for that, I give Suspiria points, purely for allowing me to continue pondering. However, I cannot be sure whether or not I could say I entirely liked this film in all honesty. For the record, last year in 2017, I was one of the rare souls who truthfully and unapologetically loved Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and the year prior, I went to great lengths to defend Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon; Suspiria quite certainly fits into the same bracket as those two films – the more ballsy, divisive Arthouse surrealist type features. And I am wholeheartedly a fan of those type of films, without a doubt… the difference between Suspiria with mother! and The Neon Demon though is… um… you know what, I cannot be sure… but, that’s what a review is for. So let’s dive deeper so that I can find out, so that you can find out and so that we can all find out, why there was something about Suspiria that did not sit entirely right with me.
Truthfully, I am a late comer to Dario Argento’s 1977 original Suspiria. Having only seen the original film this year in the lead up to Guadagnino’s remake, I saw the feature out of both preparation and general interest. My thoughts on the original Suspiria were pretty clear cut in comparison to the reboot; I quite liked the 70s version. It had a dream-like aesthetic and horrifying appeal to it for which I deliciously revelled in. And that’s also somewhat the same reasons I liked Guadagnino’s remake: for the general atmosphere.
Interestingly enough, Guadagnino approached his new project of the Suspiria remake with the intention of crafting a homage to the original rather than just remaking it. Being a self-proclaimed fan of Argento’s original work, Guadagnino made it clear through interviews that he wanted to more-or-less recreate the atmosphere of the original as opposed to just retelling the narrative. And in that instance, 2018’s Suspiria really works.
The new Suspiria bathes in a cold winterish denial of primary colours, very much unlike the vibrancy delivered in the original; yet, the visuals still managed to carry out the chills of Argento’s film, only through a whole new lens. The way the camera moved and closed in on certain characters at certain times allowed the film to play as if it were truly made in the 1970s. Oh, and through it all, Thom Yorke just unapologetically drowned the entirety of the film in vibes of Radiohead’s most unnerving brand of music, with a rhythm so unrelenting and subtle, it added greatly to the uneasiness of the film. Yorke, being a fan of Goblin and their work on the original Suspiria, really shined through as an artist who’s concepts were intact with the filmmaker’s. In fact, I would go so far to say a lot of the general disturbing atmosphere of Suspiria was as much a product of Yorke’s as it was Guadagnino’s.
Suspiria has a way of leeching to you like the frost from winter’s coldest blizzard. It crawls beneath your skin and freezes your insides, eventually working its way up to your brain almost completely consuming it in one final push for horror and confrontation. Suspiria may be the most disturbing film I have seen all year, outside of Hereditary, and almost all of that has to do with the fact that this film was made by an auteur. Suspiria is an Arthouse film before a horror film, even if it does not realise it is. So returning to mother! and The Neon Demon, I am given more incentive to link the three films by certain similarities.
Suspiria, like mother! and The Neon Demon, all appear as if an Arthouse director one day decided to say, “hey, I’m going to make a horror film now”. And as result all three films appear as slow burns, moving predominately through metaphor and atmosphere to an explosive climax, featuring sequences that push the boundaries of mainstream ‘sensibility’ (for example, The Neon Demon had the eyeball scene and mother! had the baby scene – hopefully you guys know what I am talking about). Thing is, I liked how mother! and The Neon Demon escalated, but with Suspiria… I didn’t.
To me, I just did not think Suspiria was a fulfilling enough watch to warrant its slow build into lunacy. Sometimes films can escalate in a similar fashion and then end very satisfyingly, like say Hereditary, but Suspiria felt like it’s goals were not entirely well realised and instead decided to just go insane because it could. I love Guadagnino and am infatuated with what the director chose to do for the majority of this film, but the ending just did not at all feel earned to any extent. The best way to describe it would have to be that the film ended almost amidst its process of evolving; the lights went down before the curtains closed.
Now if you were unaware, the original Suspiria was the first part to a trilogy of witch films all written and directed by Argento which therefore might give reason to why I personally felt the new film had a slightly botched ending. Maybe Guadagnino and writer, David Kajganich, were interested in following up Suspiria with their own takes on the original’s sequels as well, but I do not think this film necessarily needed the excess, especially after ending on such an absurd note. The film, like I said, operated mostly on atmosphere and so the sparing moments of gory horror worked when laced throughout, but when the final sequence decided to go “screw it let’s just go full horror”, the consistency just was not there for me to totally feel invested.
Although not horrific, Suspiria was intense and uncomfortable to watch. Sequences where bloody visual horror did in fact brim to the surface were executed flawlessly with a particular scene of contortion juxtaposed with a dance really selling the film on its disturbing demeanor. The film also never made an effort to make secret the identity of the dance instructors as witches, to which I liked and disliked. I think the film worked without having the obvious witch twist shadowing the film in its entirety, but I also think the element of mystery and ambiguity the filmmakers could have implored was felt as a noticeable loss to the film’s narrative. The eventual twist that did come into play was not as effective as possible and felt rather flat in its revelation. The potential of the witch mystery, although a bit typical, could have worked more to the film’s horror, thriller advantage.
Though speaking on the word advantage, let’s just discuss some positives concerning this film since I do want to reiterate I really did enjoy Suspiria before the eventual climax. I would especially like to applaud the all-female cast who, led by Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth, gave some alarming and heavy performances. However, if we really want to cut to the chase, let’s just talk Tilda Swinton now. Thing is, Swinton is possibly my favourite actor working today – not actress, I mean actor, encapsulating every on-screen performer currently. In Suspiria, Swinton plays not one, not two, but THREE characters… and you know what, I did not even realise she played three characters all up until just this morning.
Swinton appeared pivotally as Madame Blanc, for which, in all her superbness and elegant, though sinister, mannerisms, she nailed the role flawlessly with her cold stares and well-postured struts. Though also, Swinton portrayed the villainous Mother Markos and also the film’s only male character, Dr. Josef Klemperer. With the latter character quite possibly being the film’s most endearing, there really has to be a whole new level of praise in order to meet the talent of Swinton in Suspiria, performing at her purest of heights. Also, this would have to be the best time to bring this up, but the make-up team and hair-stylist should be congratulated immensely for their work on Suspiria. For me to not even pick up on someone like Swinton portraying an elderly man was not only a genius move on the actor’s part but also the artist who created such a convincing and unflinching look. Just incredible stuff.
Fascinating too how this film chose to explore its themes, expanding on those of the original including motherhood and matriarchy but also setting itself against the troubled era Germany experienced during the later 1970s. Changing the year of the film’s setting to the year of the original film’s release, really allowed audiences to lean into understanding what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish thematically in the Suspiria remake. Assessing the abuse of power, quite literally through the supposedly helpful, but truthfully manipulative female teachers, unravelled more fluently when existing in a time and place where Germany, still reeling from the wrongs of World War Two, came to assess their own power and essential division through the growth of the Berlin Wall. The film’s ideas on power were only dilated by the guilt of a nation that blew like a blizzard beyond the walls of the academy. The normalisation of evil and the uneasy corruption of those in power were felt through all accounts, especially in the character of Josef.
The good doctor, the only male character and singular protagonist to exist outside the bounds of the academy, appeared as a victim of the corrupted power; a patriarch, who having lost his herd, begins a quest to sought out ways to make amends with the world. Josef’s ties to the Holocaust only further extends on the film’s concepts of ignorance to evil and additionally sights Josef as, what would appear, a cleansed figure, despite the guilt of his actions, or more appropriately, inactions. So it would make sense, the witches work as an opposing force on morals, as the matriarchs from the inside juxtapose the patriarchs from the outside… or at least, believe they do. Still all systems of power fall prey to the same societal errors of abuse, brought on by utter ignorance. And, of course, with commentary on matriarchy comes insight on motherhood, with the characters of Susie and Blanc playing deeply into those further ideas of mentorship dynamics and an almost surrender to ultimate comfort and understanding of one’s identity.
So… I guess that’s it. My current and complete thoughts on Guadagnino’s Suspiria. I may have not entirely loved this film or would go so far to call it the highest form of cinematic art, but at least it tries to reach said level. The film never compromises its style and that is something to applaud it on. Honestly, being a fan of Guadagnino, Swinton, Arthouse filmmaking and the original Suspiria, I really wanted to love this film. In saying that though, my thoughts on Suspiria have developed and morphed rapidly in the few days since my first viewing, so there is a great possibility that later in life or maybe in a few weeks, I will come to really cherish this film. However, in the here and now, I must stay true to my current opinion, and for now, I am still partly in shock… thanks to the “red” scene.
I look forward to further viewings, and even if Suspiria does not receive my highest rating, in the word’s of Indiana Jones, “it [still] belongs in a museum!”.
Suspiria is a bloody… CRUSADE!!
- LA 2018, Suspiria (2018), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 3 September 2018, <http://www.impawards.com/2018/suspiria_ver13.html> (Featured Image)
- Gleiberman, O 2018, Film Review: ‘Suspiria’, Variety, WordPress.com VIP, <https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/suspiria-review-dakota-johnson-1202924220/>