Luca Guadagnino doesn’t want you to call his Suspiria a remake, but a “cover version.” The Italian director has traded Call Me By Your Name’s sensual peaches for sensual Satanic dancing in what can only be described as a scholarly deconstruction of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria. This reimagining ditches the most memorable aspects of the original–its colorful cinematography and hypnotic prog rock score–and replaces them with muted colors and quieter music. This film focuses instead on shapes and forms, with dancing as its main form for storytelling, and a muddled narrative that fails to bewitch.
Structured as “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” Suspiria tries to expand on the original by adding a full hour to the runtime with a bunch of new subplots. The original year of Argento’s classic is used as the setting for this version, allowing Guadagnino to add a whole new political dimension to a film that was heavy in style but light in plot. The story is now set against the background of the “German Autumn,” where reports of bombings and kidnappings by the Baader-Meinhof Group, the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight, and the demand for the release of imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders fill the TV sets seen in the background of several scenes. While it’s admirable that Guadagnino and writer David Kajganich try to add some context to the story in the form of parallels to German guilt and the political anger felt by a big part of the population against their elders in power, it ends up being all setup and no payoff. There is no reason given as to why any of this should be in the film, and it’s not the only confusing part about Suspiria.
The movie starts with shots of chaos on the streets and a young American dancer, Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is convinced that her dance academy is run by a coven of witches. Right before she disappears off the face of the Earth, she confides in German psychotherapist Dr. Jozef Klemperer, who during production was reported to have been played by unknown German actor Lutz Ebersdorf. In the worst kept secret in recent film history, everyone guessed long ago that Klemperer is actually one of Tilda Swinton’s not one, but three roles in the film (despite those involved in the film denying it). There is no reason why Swinton should play Klemperer, besides just letting Swinton showcase how incredible an actress she is. We spend quite a lot of time with the psychotherapist, who not only tries to find the truth behind Patricia’s disappearance but is constantly seen walking past the Berlin wall, grieving over his separation from his wife after the 1943 bombing of Berlin. Is the wife important? Does Klemperer’s backstory play any kind of role in his character development or motivation? Absolutely not, besides giving Jessica Harper from the original Suspiria a small cameo in the film.
While most of the added story doesn’t work and only extends the runtime past any reasonable length, Guadagnino and Kajganich do succeed in one area the original failed at: the dancing. The film takes place at a dance academy after all, so it was time to finally shine a spotlight on why someone would go from the US to Germany and live inside a creepy building run by witches. Dakota Johnson now plays Susie Bannion, a former Mennonite from Ohio (another thread that leads nowhere) who despite having no formal training, is so good at dancing she catches the attention of the enigmatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, again). Dakota does a good job at playing the innocent, naïve American girl who is hiding many secrets, but her performance peaks during the dance scenes. At a Q&A after the film’s premiere at Fantastic Fest, writer David Kajganich explained that he actually wrote the dancing into the script, and worked very closely with choreographer Damien Jalet. Johnson moves and contorts in hypnotic ways that carry more of the story than any dialogue or set piece.
There has been a lot of talk about a dance scene early in the film that was both shown at CinemaCon, and is teased in the trailers. In the scene, Johnson, with some dark witchcraft, seems to take control of a former teacher at the academy, her movements slamming, twisting, and crushing the agonizing teacher into knots. Walter Fasano’s rapid fire editing and cross-cutting make for a really terrifying body horror sequence that will make you gasp.
Perhaps to avoid too many comparisons to Argento’s film, Guadagnino decided to strip away the two most memorable and beloved aspects of the 1977 original: the color and the score. No longer bathed in red, the new Suspiria looks the exact opposite, with muted colors and numerous shades of grey to match the depressing look of ’70s Berlin. When it comes to sound, Thom Yorke replaces the prog rock music by Goblin with a moody, quieter score that is hypnotic at times, but ultimately forgettable. This film doesn’t use color or sound to drive the visual storytelling; instead it focuses on movements and shapes. Dancing is now a weapon, an extension of the story, character development, and most of all, witchcraft. Most of the big story points are told through dance sequences, with bodies contorting in twisted movements that resemble a dark ritual for an evil deity. That said, by the last act, the film does take a 180-degree turn and decides to paint every corner of the frame red with blood, in an orgiastic big finish that doesn’t leave a single clean spot on the screen.
There is a great 90-minute film hidden somewhere under all the muss of this 153-minute-long motion picture, but it gets lost among a plethora of subplots and attempts at social commentary that lead nowhere. While the dance sequences will make your skin crawl, and Tilda Swinton can do no wrong, the truth is that this film is simply boring. A few thrills and the use of a familiar story don’t excuse the rest of a disappointing film. In the end, Suspiria is a frustrating experience that pretends to have more substance than it ultimately contains.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Tilda Swinton sells any character||Subplots get messy and distracting|
|Dance sequences are mesmerizing||Starts threads that lead nowhere|
|It leaves the door open to a potentially interesting sequel||Muted aesthetic adds little|
|Answers are spoon-fed to the audience, eliminating any mystery|