Not a horror movie. A psychological thriller with a strong, unique landscape. Guadagnino triumphs as usual.
First off, I have never seen the original SUSPIRIA, the 1977 supernatural horror film directed by Dario Argento and co-written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi. It was partially based on Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay, Suspira de Profundis, which is rooted in the visionary experiences of De Quincey’s famous opium addiction.
De Quincey is best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). SUSPIRIA is much more interesting now, isn’t it?
I cannot evaluate Luca Guadagnino's SUSPIRIA remake with, what I am certain, is not a hallowed piece of cinematic art. Bravo for redoing it. It’s not the remake of SCHINDLER’S LIST.
This one has a lot going for it. Simply, the director, Luca Guadagnino, is someone who is truly an “auteur”. His is the provocative consciousness that is designing what happens. It is his dream.
Leaving what the original SUSPIRIA was about, this one takes place Berlin in 1977. No cellphones, no Internet to solve pesky plot points, and, no wonder Berliners are hosts to a coven of witches – it’s always either raining or snowing. There are no snow removal trucks and no one ever carries an umbrella. It’s my kind of a city. Berlin is so miserable that people rush by with their heads down without even looking at each other. It is damn cold and, I repeat, no one has an umbrella or wears a heavy coat.
For Guadagnino, this life is full of misery, despair and loneliness. This sun-less mecca of toxicity erupts in violent street protests – who knows why? A militant German clique, the Baader-Meinhof Group, is causing havoc in the city and has hijacked a Lufthansa plane full of passengers. They want the release of their imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders. With all this going on and the frequent street bombings, a coven of bloodthirsty witches can go about their evil intent without any interference.
In this backdrop of icy cold rain, a haven for a set of young dancer-misfits, are studying some form of modern dance at a dance academy led by a world-renowned dancer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton).
A really old man, psychotherapist Dr. Jozef Klemperer (credited as Lutz Ebersdorf), has spent the last 20+ years mourning the separation from his wife in the bombing of 1943. What happened to her? He still sees patients and has a very accommodating housekeeper. His wife may have died alone, but he has lived on.
Klemperer is so frail that when a patient, Patricia Hingle (Chloe Grace Moretz), bursts into his office and starts slipping into a psychotic fugue, I feared for his safety. Yet, he seemed used to her ramblings about a group of witches inside her head. Klemperer goes on taking notes as she slips in and out of a nightmare. There are demons everywhere. Who should she warn?
Throwing her backpack on the floor upon entering, she must hear something terrifying. She leaps out the door without her stuff. Klemperer finds her diary. Some of the drawings make peculiar sense to him. She has been a student at the well-regarded dance academy and kept writing the name Mother Markos.
Wouldn’t you know – ain’t it a bitch – even Satan’s powerfully strong spell-spurting witches have a Members Council and there is a power struggle for the top spot?
In her first ever trip outside of Ohio comes Mennonite Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) in a waist-length wig. It’s the type of wig you just know is going to be cut off at the shoulders. (In Jennifer Garner’s second episode of the HBO bomb, Camping, a character’s waist-length hair was also cut into a shoulder-length bob.)
Instead of following the righteous path of her mother’s death bed wishes, Susie runs off to Berlin and auditions for the dance academy. Susie has no formal training, but she has an awesome talent for interpretative dance. These long dance sequences are kind of amusing if you are not a student of the strenuous training of striking and then holding impossible poses. It’s the Theater of Angst.
Most of Susie’s audition is her hitting her head on the floor. This style of dancing, quite revered, does not include the tough Pirouette en dehors, Grand Jete or the hardest Fouette. She is quickly accepted and given a full scholarship, a free room and some spending money. As Madame Blanc fawns over her, the other girls are not like catty American girls. They would have given her the Old Order Mennonite “shunning” treatment.
Susie knows that leaving her dying mother and her community means she has been excommunicated and will be covered with the stigma of shame.
Madame Blanc is impervious, demanding and crazy as…well, its Tilda and she can do no wrong. With high theatricality and severe, but sensually draped everyday gowns, when she is not on screen, you are wondering where the hell she is. Madame Blanc has a backlog of dances to be performed by her troupe, but Susie has inspired her. “Leap higher, leap higher” she demands.
This is the dance of religion, not nightclub dancing with a drink in your hand.
For me, I would hail Swinton playing any part. Tilda Swinton should play Hugh Hefner.
The Council is made up of several Academy staff that demand that Madame Blanc shape up and get on with it. The Council is preparing to vote for either Madame Blanc or Mother Markos to lead them. Who knew coven heads had term limits?
Of course, the ritualistic “Hail, Satan” finale is terrifying and when one student decides to flee the group, her demise is…I couldn’t watch it. And it was never-ending.
Guadagnino is a fantastic director with a strong, fatalistic view. I loved I AM LOVE (2009), A BIGGER SPLASH (2015, with Swinton and Johnson and frequent frontal nudity by Ralph Fiennes in his first – that I can recall - free-spirited performance) and CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017).
An untitled CALL ME BY YOUR NAME Sequel has been announced and the entire cast is returning. (Luca, regardless of your media claims, you now have the power to show realistic, true gay sex with full frontal nudity. Many tried, but you made Armie Hammer an actor.)
With Swinton starring in three of Guadagnino’s films and Johnson in two, this is a clear indication that he is an actor’s director and now, with the CALL ME BY YOUR NAME honors, he can work with anyone he wants.
More importantly, SUSPIRIA is a very different kind of “horror” movie. It’s got an intelligence and a bleak, ominous landscape. There’s an oppressive mood that the Berlin of 1977 just seems like the perfect place for a coven. And finally, watching all those agonizingly stumping the floor finally pays off, when the troupe finally lets their freak fly – wisely sans those awful performance costumes.
Johnson does what she can with that wig, but she is too shallow to give us a suggestion that she might not have wandered into the academy without an appointment.
Mia Goth, as Susie’s friend Sara, should have really played Susie. While Moretz does a great scene-stealing cameo, she could have also been a better Susie than Johnson. However, Guadagnino is, loyal.
And further, I continually use this outlet to complain about the awful title given to Guadagnino’s A BIGGER SPLASH, written by his SUSPIRIA screenwriter David Kajganich. Also, Kaiganich developed and wrote four episodes of AMC’s astonishing The Terror.
Victoria Alexander is a member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/. Victoria lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at email@example.com.
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Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: lvfcs.org